Elbow @ Festival Hall, 21st Of March

There were a couple of strange things about Wednesday night’s Elbow show. Firstly, the band were returning to Australia despite touring as recently as mid-last year while playing Splendour In The Grass. Secondly, the choice of Festival Hall as a venue was very peculiar: it’s not exactly a mystery that it’s my least favourite music venue in Melbourne, and I would have far preferred to have seen Elbow at a venue such as The Palace or Forum. But, once the night’s music started none of this seemed to matter very much, because one thing that was very, very predictable about the gig was that Elbow were just fantastic. 

The opening act weren’t bad either. I had never seen Bombay Bicycle Club live before, despite having followed their career keenly since the release of their first album, and the guys did not disappoint. They are unique as a band in that every one of their studio albums is completely different to the others, but yet somehow they managed to play a live show that perfectly melded all the elements of their music. At times a little grungey, at others a little folky, the only consistent was that every single song they played was highly enjoyable.

Ivy And Gold was of course my personal favourite song of their set: the band changed the track a fair bit live, adding a really driving and powerful drum beat that contrasted magnificently with the acoustic guitar that usually is the unquestioned centerpiece of the song. Tracks from ‘I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose’ stood out like sore thumbs compared to the rest of the set, and I can’t help but feel that the band really have moved on from that style of music and are better suited to playing their newer songs live. Still though, the heavier numbers broke up the set nicely, and no-one could criticise Bombay Bicycle Club’s set for being monotone.

The band were very thankful of the sizable crowd that had assembled to watch them play, and by the time they were finishing up, the General Admission area of Festival Hall was pretty much packed. They chose Shuffle to close their set, and it received easily the strongest response from the crowd, which was indicative of how that track in particular has really opened up their music to a wider audience. It was of course brilliant live, even if much of the song’s charm came from the pre-recorded backing track.

All in all Bombay Bicycle Club were a fantastic opening act that I would have happily seen headline a show. They’re a band that I had been wanting to see live for a long time, so it was a relief when they didn’t disappoint and instead played a charming and at times very powerful set full of lovely music. I still think they should fight it out with Hot Chip for the title of nerdiest looking band though.

It was unfortunately clear that the show was far from sold out: half the seating area was obscured by black curtains descending from the ceiling, obviously designed to hide the fact that there were a lot of empty seats in Festival Hall. Considering the band’s popularity in the UK it was a little bit embarrassing. And moreover it was a real pity because Elbow are a band that deserve to be selling out every single venue that they play. Still though, the band were only in Australia last year, and most importantly the General Admission area was clearly sold out or very close to, which created a fantastic atmosphere that erupted when Guy Garvey and co. walked out onto the stage.

I may as well say from the off that Guy is probably the best frontman I have ever seen. He had the entire crowd in the palm of his hands from the very start of the show; he was charming, relaxed, commanding, and very very funny. It’s easy to tell that he’s been doing this for over twenty years. Seeing how he commanded the large General Admission area made the choice of Festival Hall make a little more sense. Elbow proceeded to play a nearly-two-hour-long set consisting of material mostly from their last two studio albums, but with a few older numbers as well.

It was just such a polished performance. Elbow truly are a force to be reckoned with live. Guy lead the crowd in a range of exercises, from wavey hands to an extended call-and-repeat section that heralded the arrival of the one and only Grounds For Divorce, which really got the crowd worked up. In between songs he told stories and jokes that proved nearly as entertaining as the band’s music, which is a high compliment. Like all the best frontman everything he did seemed natural and relaxed.

Lippy Kids was mindblowing, as the crowd did out best to follow Guy’s whistling and did a pretty damn good job. Like a lot of Elbow’s music the song is both completely restrained and so very, very powerful. It’s such a beautiful track, and hearing it live for the second time within a year was something I won’t forget anytime soon. Not many other bands in the world play music as unquestionably good as Elbow. There’s just nothing negative you can say about them. The band have been together, without a single change in their members, since 1990, have put out consistently brilliant studio albums, and have a live show that rivals pretty much any other.

The band crowded together for Weather To Fly and did a shot together before playing the introduction to the song almost acoustically, only returning to their regular stage positions after the first chorus. The change in stage location saw the song erupt into an entirely different beast, building to an unforgettable climax. Guy finished the main set by thanking everyone in the crowd so sincerely that it was impossible not to think he was genuine when he spoke of his love for Melbourne and for the people who come to see Elbow live. 

Open Arms was the last song of the main set, and it was easily my favourite track of the night. It’s just perfect. The flow of the song is exceptional, transitioning seamlessly from the restrained verses to the euphoric, triumphant choruses that created an unprecedented amount of energy and passion in Festival Hall. It is impossible not to feel happy and hopeful when listening to Open Arms, and live it was something of a communal experience with everyone in the venue singing the choruses as loudly as we could, arms outstretched to the ceiling, following Guy’s lead.

The band returned after a short encore break to play Starlings, which was just ridiculous live. Pretty much all of the band wielded a trumpet for the beginning of the track, playing them in unison and creating a bone-jarringly powerful sound that echoed throughout the venue, accompanied by flashes of bright light from behind the stage that illuminated the entire crowd.  Similarly to Open Arms, the way the restrained song exploded into those horn moments only to ebb back into the quiet verses was nothing short of spectacular, and illustrated perfectly everything that is so good about Elbow.

Just when I was getting worried that the band may not play it, they closed with One Day Like This, possibly one of the most beautiful songs ever written. It was the perfect way to close a set; the perfect way to close any set. Guy didn’t even really need to since the choruses, such was the crowd’s obvious love of the song and dedication to the band. Thousands of voice singing “It’s looking like a beautiful day” couldn’t help but make you smile. It was a magical, life-affirming, joyous song, just like Elbow’s live show as a whole.

It had been a phenomenal show from a phenomenal band. Elbow play music that is attention demanding, not attention seeking; music that is powerful and touching and subtle. And not many bands do it better.

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