TEXT/PHOTOS BY DAVID ISKRA
“I am electric with a bottle in me, got a bottle in me.”
With that declaration, Guy Garvey strode on stage glass held high toasting not only the crowd gathered before him but Oakland’s stately Fox Theater itself. He went on to say that he was quite pleased to be in such a grand room, a place of majesty as opposed to cow barns and cement boxes.
It’s a double edged sword though. As a long time follower of the band, I am quite happy to see someone of elbow’s caliber in small venues but at the same time I am confounded that America still hasn’t caught on like the rest of the world where elbow is an arena band.
There is a good reason they can compete at both levels. Though their albums benefit from keyboardist Craig Potter’s ethereal studio production, the songs still manage to translate live in a remarkable way. Literate and sometimes profound lyrical observations about mid-life challenges are carried along by soaring and often beautiful melodies. Then, just as you’re lured into a melancholy vibe on songs such as Fly Boy Blue/Lunette, the band takes the lid off and Grounds For Divorce comes out of nowhere with a grinding bluesy guitar solo courtesy of Mark Potter. Guy even dropped his mic and hopped on drums alongside Richard Jupp for an interlude that had the crowd close to head-banging as you can get for a predominantly white Brit-pop loving crowd. Even the slower songs prompted sing-alongs and hands waving in the air.
Somehow this remains a cohesive show from start to finish. The band played a good portion of their brilliant new album “The Take Off and Landing of Everything” while also reaching deep into the back catalog. This only served to remind you what a solid and consistent band they’ve been since “Asleep in the Back” dropped alongside debut albums by Doves and Coldplay back in the early ‘00s. Somehow elbow have avoided trend hopping (no EDM tracks here!)or straying too far from their sound yet at the same time, avoided going stale. A great portion of that is because as a whole they are a band of solid and talented musicians. What drives it home though is Guy’s everyday likability mixed with his magical ability to craft honest lyrics that hit home without talking down to his audience.
I had a chance to sit down with Pete Turner and Guy before the show to discuss the tour and the album. Pete walked in looking like he was beat up on the sometimes not friendly streets of Oakland. The truth was much more fun. He took a tumble onto some sharp volcanic rock while watching Queens of the Stone Age at the Sasquatch festival Guy tells me, more amused by the story than Pete. Onstage he tells the audience that it happened saving an elderly woman from a fire.
Sitting with them was less rock star interview and more catching up with two good guys who also happen to be in a band. They exude a quiet confidence and a relaxed vibe that is at once disarming and reassuring. We talked about the new album which is more of a mid-life observation album than it is a mid-life crisis.
Antony and Cleopatra which Guy described as Shakespeare’s only middle aged love story inspired My Sad Captain’s. “I missed my friends and I wanted to write about it.” Guy says. Antony gave up his army for Cleopatra and missed his army, longing for the adventures he shared with his captains. Guy misses his friends. Like most men his age, his friends can no longer go out to the pub for a late night beer. They’re home with the kids or prepping for the big presentation the next day.
What is unique is that he can take that feeling we’ve all had at one time or another and turn it into something grand and poetic yet intimate and honest at the same time. It is rare that an anthem can avoid being bombastic but somehow with a clever twists of words, they pull it off. When asked if he planned this mid-life as a theme to the album he responds that it just happened.
“Reaching an age where decisions are made”: the lyric evokes that moment in life where you realize you are halfway through and it might be time to grow up and settle down or carry on. Sometimes those decisions aren’t completely up to you. Guy knows this and sings it without a hint of sadness or resignation but like a man with the wisdom to know how life goes. Let’s hope he keeps singing about it.
Elbow wrapped up their tour in Los Angeles and told me they might hit a few smaller venues in the UK to carry on the momentum they’ve built up here in the US. In addition we spoke about several side projects and ideas to keep them busy until the next album.