Thursday, July 23, 2009

Elbow triumphs in LA

There wasn't much Elbow room at the Wiltern Theater last night. Taking a night off from their regular slot as Coldplay's opening act, Elbow filled the cavernous Art Deco venue for their own headlining show. One of the greatest bands to emerge this decade, Elbow toiled away in rock's minor leagues until they unexpectedly became the UK's biggest band. Credit a carpe diem set at the televised Glastonbury festival followed by the prestigious Mercury Prize for best album of 2008. It's an unlikely feat for these five middle-aged Mancunians, a few of them portly in stature, who I once interviewed as "the best band you've never heard."

They're hardly well-known here in the US but, like their good friends Doves, who played a sterling show here in May, they're slowly getting better known stateside. The band's singer, Giy Garvey, has one of the most emotionally honest and beautiful voices in rock. As I noted during my review of the band's debut, "Asleep in the Back," Elbow's arrangements explore the space between notes and their understanding of light-and-shade dynamics add up to an intimate grandeur.
The evening started with Elbow's Guy Garvey coming on stage to introduce opener Jesca Hoop, who released my favorite album of 2007. Since Hoop's only accompaniment was acoustic guitar and a girl friend on backing vocals, Garvey appealed to the audience to give her due attention. Jesca was stunning. Just one old song -- "Seeds of Wonder" -- and then a set of avant-garde pop from her imminent record, "Hunting My Dress." One of those songs "Murder of Birds," which appears on Hoop's recent acoustic EP, features Garvey and he came came on stage to duet with her. (Hear it here.)
Good thing Jesca had a backing vocalist -- well, more of a co-vocalist, really. On record, her songs are all about vocal harmonies and counterpoints and the other girl did a great job of helping create a rich vocal tapestry. I went to see Jesca perform at a small venue -- the Hotel Cafe -- tonight, during which she did an expanded set (including some songs off her debut, "Kismet"). Now I have two of her new songs looping repeatedly in my head, which bodes well for her new record.This was my third time seeing Elbow since 2002 and their set list featured many of my favorite songs, including "The Bones of You," and "Loneliness of the Crane Driver," and "Mirrorball" (Garvey said that song is about the morning after falling in love). Alas, they didn't play "Fugitive Motel" and "Great Expectations," which the band played this morning during a performance on KCRW radio -- watch or listen to their performance here. (Incidentally, Garvey hosts a brilliant 2-hour show -- Guy Garvey's Finest Hour -- on BBC Radio 6 every Sunday night. It's a weekly listen for me, since my music tastes are pretty synchronous with his.) Guy Garvey was in great voice throughout the night and a warm and talkative presence on stage. During one song, he walked down the entire length of the stage shaking hands with each member of the front row. For "One Day Like This," he brought two random audience members on stage to sing along.

Elbow has two girl violinists, who also do backing vocals, on this tour and they certainly add lovely textures to the material. Biggest surprise was the reworked version of "Weather to Fly." They broke the song in two. For the first part, the whole hand huddled around the keyboard and did a stripped down version with just percussion and Guy's vocals. Gorgeous. Then they did the electric version.
"Grounds for Divorce" was a highlight of the evening with the crowd enthusiastically singing the "whoa-oh-oh-oh" parts. It sounded immense! There was also a stellar selection of a few older songs, including personal favorites such as "Station Approach" and "Newborn." The liquid lead guitar lines in "Newborn" were indescribably beautiful and the rock-out coda had me punching the air. They also played "The Stops," "Leaders of the Free World," "Switching Off" (which Guy said is about one's final thought before death, about a loved one), and "Mexican Standoff." Most songs were even better live and Pete Turner's heavy bass riffing worked a treat on tracks like "Leaders of the Free World." Final song of the night was a very soulful "Scattered Black and Whites."My wife loved the show as Elbow is a favorite band of hers. And, corny as it sounds, we made out during the "we kissed like we invented it" line in "Mirrorball."

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