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Elbow at the 9:30 Club, Washington, DC, September 22, 2011

September 28, 2011

I’m spiritually indebted to fellow Tweedster Lloyd for a lot of things, many of which include introductions to great music. He takes the time to sift through everything and pick out the gems. Even in the more “indie” genres (whose fanbases can, frankly, be just as capricious as the Top-40 crowd) he really has a feel for quality and staying-power. He knows just what to pass on to his friends, and can often uncannily match bands to our individual tastes. I’m definitely going to check out that Submotion Orchestra!

So it wasn’t that long ago that he brought Elbow to my attention. I believe his pitch was “‘Grounds for Divorce’ is the best song Gomez never wrote!” Comparisons to those late-90s darlings aside (though I still bang my head and make the “what’s that smell?” face when that bass kicks in), Elbow quickly became one of my favorite bands based in no small part on their stellar 2008 album The Seldom Seen Kid. 2011’s Build a Rocket Boys sealed the deal and I’ve begun working backwards through their catalog.

Thus it was with great joy that Mrs. theGeek and I discovered that Elbow would be performing at DC’s 9:30 Club during our vacation to the area. We bought our tickets well in advance and looked forward to a sold-out show at one of the country’s most respected live music venues. After (if I may be candid) suffering through opening act, Glasser (which I might have liked better if I hadn’t already heard Björk), we watched Elbow’s five members and two violin accompanists take the stage for a solid 2-hour set comprised of equal parts The Seldom Seen Kid and Build a Rocket Boys, with a few choice tracks from 2006’s Leaders of the Free World. (The full setlist is available here.)

It’s hard to deny that Elbow’s principal attraction is front-man Guy Garvey. The man’s self-deprecating humor, sincerity, and conviviality are a great complement to his smoov-like-buttah voice and brilliant, emotive lyrics. He sings earnestly, reaching an alternately imploring and inviting hand out to the audience as he addresses a specific word or phrase at a particular face in the crowd. This guy connects, man! Even on down-tempo songs, he mesmerizes as he puts all he’s got into every word and note. Clearly, emoting comes naturally to Garvey and you don’t get any of the jaded weariness that most performers suffer this late in a tour. He struts about the stage, gesturing and patting the shoulders of each member in turn. These are brothers in arms, and the affection is genuine.

This particular show was the 10th anniversary of the band’s first show at the 9:30. Much of Garvey’s between-song banter consisted of requests for more Irish whiskey (“with an ‘e'”), comments on how well they are treated by the staff, and how the club’s thoughtfulness in providing laundry facilities has caused the band to dub it “Washing-town, DC.” Garvey also takes pains to engage the audience at every opportunity. Before a call-and-response singalong intro to “Grounds for Divorce,” he led the audience in an ode to a lady in the front row, humorously fishing for words that rhyme with “Deanna.” Later he roped us into singing Happy Birthday to another audience member, after which Garvey quipped “happy birthday, here’s a song about mourning a friend’s death!” (“The Night Will Always Win”). He tells the stories behind certain songs. “Lippy Kids” is about remembering that you were young and stupid once too, and that older doesn’t always necessarily mean wiser. “Puncture Repair” is about friends who pick you up when you’re down. I can’t speak for everybody, but I really enjoy this kind of background information and the informality that goes along with sharing such detail in the moment with a crowd of fans.

I don’t mean to give the rest of the band short shrift. They are all excellent performers. The band prefers a staggered, zig-zag stage layout rather than the traditional “drums in the back” setup; thus, all 5 members are clearly visible from just about anywhere in the venue and it’s almost impossible for anyone to stand in front of anyone else. Guitarist Mark Potter seems to be the all-business member of the band. He plays with a staid professionalism and an accuracy that most guitarists can’t match. He also changes guitars with alarming frequency; I don’t know if he’s simply using different tunings, or if he really insists on having just the right tone for each song. I suspect the latter. Potter’s brother, Craig, plays keys with dedication and deference. He sweeps his hands over clever chord inversions and creates the tones and textures that make each song truly unique (particularly on “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver,” whose pulsing Hammond organ is the engine that drives the song.) Drummer Richard Jupp is a real pro as well, creating the dynamic changes that are practically the band’s signature. Other than Garvey, I think I watched him the most. Jupp’s demeanor alternates intense and easygoing, sometimes appearing as if he’s giving everything he’s got, and other times looking like drumming for Elbow is the easiest thing in the world. Bassist Pete Turner is a bit of an enigma. His bass parts are often the highlight of a song (no, really!), but he seems a little uncomfortable in front of a crowd. He’s easily as tight as anyone else in the band, but seems unable to step out of himself and enjoy live performance.

After closing the main set with the anthemic “Open Arms,” Elbow returned for a three-song encore. “Starlings” featured the four non-drummers of the band playing the abrupt and alarming horn blasts on real horns. The crowd was invited to sing along to both “Station Approach” and the requisite closer “One Day Like This.” The latter was dragged out as long as possible so the crowd could really belt the song’s “throw those curtains wide, one day like this a year would see me right” refrain. I assure you, no one was silent, and no one wasn’t smiling.

{PS: This is our 1500th post at TBTS. WordPress assures me that this is “dope.” Thanks for reading!}

  1. Lloyd permalink
    September 30, 2011 9:35 am

    I appreciate the words in your opening paragraph. I gotta say, though, that I don’t do nearly as much of that “sifting” as I used to, especially of the newest indie-rock stuff, even though tools like Spotify make it much easier to do so now. Among our friends, I’m pretty certain that T. Stump and his missus know much more than I do about Tuneyards, St. Vincent, Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and the many other indie icons of today. I might know the names, but I don’t know the actual music anymore. And that’s fine by me, actually, as most of today’s celebrated indie-rock doesn’t do much for me.

  2. Lloyd permalink
    September 30, 2011 9:54 am

    P.S. I’m glad you guys got to see Elbow. Pretty sure I would have been all weepy during that “One Day Like This” closer, and your description is very nicely done.

    You should check out their first album Asleep in the Back if you haven’t heard much of it. It’s different–a lot of the songs are dark and moody and kinda droning–but pretty great.


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