Words: Kim and Derek Photos: Derek
[A note on this post. What follows is a kind of annotated description of the performance. We did not record the show. Instead, dialogue is reconstructed from notes hastily scribbled in the dark, written as the note-taker was under the spell of our magician-conductor, Guy Garvey. So quotations aren’t perfect.]
It’s an orchestral opening – which, we would later see, perfectly set the stage for all that followed. We would also learn that the orchestral piece was by Joe Duddell, the British conductor/composer who arranged – and conducted – elbow’s songs for the legendary (Google it!) show by elbow and the Hallé at The Bridgewater Hall for the 2009 Manchester International Festival.
The band enters; and Guy Garvey, our host and personal conductor for the evening, toasts the audience. This, too, would have significance.
“the birds” (rocket boys!)
The toast: it’s the 10th anniversary of elbow’s first performance at the 9:30 Club: “Still the best club in America.” (Appreciative cheers of agreement from the audience. We know he’s not just blowing smoke here.) For those of us not fortunate enough to be there back in 2001, a quick look at the band’s discography reveals that this was the year elbow’s first studio album, Asleep in the Back, was released. No wonder Garvey remembers it. Milestones.
“The Bones of You” (SSK)
“I can work ‘til I break but I love the bones of you. That I will never escape.”
[One of us believes down to her bones that, if only she could write a song as perfect as this one, she could die content, knowing that she had increased the beauty of the universe.]
We now learn that the opening orchestral piece was by Duddell, who appears to be in the audience. Meanwhile, Garvey has himself become a kind of conductor. A front-man-conductor. And we, it seems, are his orchestra. He warms up by leaning toward the audience, pointing to us, one by one, smiling broadly as he points, singing. Oh look – he’s pointing at us now!
Emerging for a moment from Garvey’s spell, we notice that there are two violinists tucked between the keyboards and the drums, set near the back of the stage. Were they there all along, or did they glide into place while we were otherwise entranced? Don’t know. Garvey continues to reach out – literally, still leaning forward as he points – to each person in the audience. It’s like we’re all old friends, and he’s glad that each and every one of us is here. And then, he moves from pointing to … groping fingers? Very glad we’re here?? Giggles bubble up around us.
“neat little rows” (rocket boys!)
“lay my bones in neat little rows”
Garvey confides that he’s about to “lift the vein on touring.” The 9:30 has washing machines! The 9:30 “does everything well.” And that’s why he thinks of D.C. as “Washing-town.”
This leads into the audience participation portion of the evening (which continues, in fact, for the duration): “What’s the point of getting together and listening to music if you don’t get involved?” “It’s your duty to act like a dick!” He wants us all to warm up our vocal cords with a call-and-response sing-along. The song? He asks a woman in the audience for her name. “Diana.”
“Di – an – a.” Guy sings the syllables; we sing them back. Variations; repeat. He’s looking for something to rhyme with “Diana.” Skipping the far-lewder “banana” option, he goes with the keyboard player’s suggestion: “piana”: “Diana … the piana was made to make love to you … in Washing-town.” More vocalizations around syllables; calls and responses; then variations suddenly take on a familiar form. Yes indeed, it’s the start of …
“Grounds for Divorce” (SSK)
Fabulous. The energy is tangible. We’re all warmed up now. And then, a mood change:
“The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver” (SSK)
From pulsating energy to swaying angst. We all shift emotional gears, smoothly and in tandem. Garvey has started to pull each of us, his audience-friends, together. He conducts us. We respond, part of his performance.
Keeping with the new tone, Guy tells us that the next song is “one of our favorites.” It’s about a wedding that took place 20 years ago – on a bus (a night bus, it seems) – a wedding so secret that, “to this day, the bride has no idea it took place.” They begin …
“Great Expectations” (Leaders)
Guy wraps his “bride” in stories – and us, along with her: “And this is where I go – just when it rains.” It seems to take him a beat or two to pull back from the song when it’s done.
He begins to set up the next song. He’s offering some advice: when you’re missing someone … and then, the lone clapper, propped up against a bar set around mid-audience, begins clapping. Slow, single hand-claps, relentless, as if he’s setting a tempo but the band won’t begin – or he’s calling them back for a tardy encore. No, he’s not a plant for the band. He’s just … drunk? Looking for attention? Both? This being elbow, the bid works. Every audience member is a dear friend, after all. Now, though, another man in the audience comes to Garvey’s attention. He’s about 2/3 of the way back in the audience, so it’s rather amazing he could be seen from the stage. He’s holding up 2 fingers. This could be taken as a peace sign or a questionable gesture, but we’re in D.C., not London. Oh. It’s literal. There are two things he wants to say. One of which is that it’s his birthday. Naturally. And, since we are all good buds now, we, naturally, sing him happy birthday. It’s fun, but it deprives us of the song set-up that Guy was about to share. Instead, we go straight into:
“the night will always win” (rocket boys!)
“I miss your stupid face
I miss your bad advice
I tried to clothe your bones with scratches
Super 8s, exaggerated stories and old tunes
But never by the moon …”
Who knew “I miss your stupid face” could sound so heart-wrenchingly gorgeous? And it’s another “bones” song.
Afterwards, the stage empties but for Guy and his keyboardist/wizard producer, Craig Potter. Garvey calls for an Irish whiskey and begins the story of his heartbreak, some 20 years ago. Back then, the drummer – who is still the drummer, Richard Jupp – was there to pick up Garvey’s “pissed-up pieces” (if we heard this correctly); the song that came out was …
“Puncture Repair” (Leaders)
“I leaned on you today.”
Garvey mentions several times over the course of the night that this is not only their 10th anniversary at the 9:30; it’s also the 20th year that the band has been together. (The band’s name has changed over the years – but what’s in a name? Especially when the cast has been so remarkably consistent.) The lyrics hint at the secret of the band’s longevity. It’s a family. The thought leads one of us to wonder: someone broke Guy Garvey’s heart? The man remembers anniversaries without prompting and excels at long-term commitment. How ever could …
Ah, here’s the whiskey. And a transition into the next song that is so seamless it takes us a moment to figure out it is, in fact, the next song. It’s
“the river” (rocket boys!)
Everyone is back on stage. Guy asks: how many of us think of ourselves as young? (Many respond.) As old? (fewer responses here – though this is perhaps a fitting time to observe that the age range of this audience is striking. Perhaps Peter Gabriel’s decision to scratch elbow’s back with a cover of “Mirrorball” brought a new group of American fans to the band?). The next song, Garvey tells us, is about how things change when you get older, and you have something to protect. He can relate to both sides, young and old. He’s even experienced that fear felt by the old for the unpredictable power of youth. Anyway, the single came out the week of the recent riots in England. The song reminds us – as it reminds him when he needs to remember it – that you “can’t be suspicious of young people because they’re young. It just makes you look stupid – and old.” And that single is, of course,
“lippy kids” (rocket boys!)
The whistling in the song turns into another call-and-response. Which works well, till Guy decides to throw several complex curves into the tune. More interactions with the audience follow. One woman shouts out. Garvey stops. She has his “mother’s tone” to her voice – it has the power to “stop a child at 100 yards.”
The band then gathers around the keyboardist. There’s a guitar, assorted percussion, and more Irish whiskey. With an “-ey,” thank you. It’s an anniversary, after all – 10 years for the 9:30; 20 for the band. They perform
“Weather to Fly” (SSK)
… doing a little dance in the process. Guy assures us it’s the first time they’ve danced it. And then, they all go back to their instruments to reprise the song, full-band now. Oops: Guy spills a bit of beer on the small keyboard next to the bass player. And then he jumps into the audience. A big hug for Diana comes at the end of his audience tour. He returns to the stage – with some assistance (he later thanks his helpers) – and conducts the audience, again, as he finishes.
One more song before the encore. It’s
“open arms” (rocket boys!)
It has the feel of an old-fashioned drinking song – at least in its chorus. Garvey conducts us again, his arms, fittingly, open wide. Whether or not the offer of “open arms/for broken hearts” is, at least in the recorded version, wholly altruistic, doesn’t matter tonight. We are delighted to accept it. At this point, we half expect to see each audience member spontaneously throw arms around neighbors, swaying together the way we’ve seen in movies. Or when the marching band plays the alma mater at the end of Notre Dame football games. Before this happens, though, elbow leaves the stage.
As we wait for the lads to return, let’s revisit the opening act. Glasser is, in essence, Cameron Mesirow from L.A. She’s got a drummer/synth master in tow. Beyond this, it’s her voice – her music – her movement – and her odd sleeveless prison smock, stripes of white and black broken only by a pink-and-white striped apron. Bjork’s name begins to be whispered around us. But Bjork, made melodic. Could Clannad (Enya, specifically) merge with Bjork, with a touch of old Ryuichi Sakamoto stirred into the mix … Her movement is distinctive, bird-like. A tropical bird, and we happen to catch her private performance, unseen. It’s engaging. And the girl must be given credit. With a voice like that, she could easily be singing blandly commercial, yet profitable, music. She follows her own muse. (Though she sounds nothing like Muse.)
The band returns to the stage; four of them are carrying horns. We, their friends in the audience, know by the brass props what song they’ll be playing next. The four horns blanket the audience for
Following Garvey, we’re all simulating waving grass with our arms. And, by the way, if you think you can hide in the back and don’t have to play along – think again. Guy will see you and call you out. But the truth is that most of us – his instruments; his orchestra – follow him willingly.
Before the next song, he seeks out Rick and Denise in the audience. Rick wants Denise to know that he loves her very much, Garvey tells us. The next song, he continues, is for Denise …
“Station Approach” (Leaders)
One more Happy Anniversary to the 9:30. We end on what is now, arguably, the only song elbow should ever end on:
“One Day Like This” (SSK)
“One day like this a year would see me right”
Our maestro has left us at the end of the night with a unique, collaborative composition in our heads, and with each of our souls, sung down to the bone, fleshed out again and made better. Pessimists have become optimists; autumn is spring again; natures previously sunny are now perfectly blinding. Shiny. Each of us is expanded, energized – transformed. At least for a while. (We also tried to buy a tour t-shirt – despite the steep price – but they were sold out by the time we arrived at the merch booth.)
“One day like this a year would see me right.” Yep, that would just about do it. But, being selfish, we would want more.
P.S. Guy: before you leave Washing-town, would you consider swinging by the U.S. Capital Building? You alone may have the power to expand the hearts and minds of our fossilized Congress and get them to work together to accomplish something great.
Elbow performing at the 9:30 Club. Photos by Derek Bond