Angels and Drunks
Midway through their 2-hour set, elbow's front man Guy Garvey apologises. "Sorry for being drunk and for forgetting the words."
It is during Puncture Repair, an older song in a set dominated by new material. Garvey stumbles towards Craig Potter, the band's keyboard player and producer of their last two albums, elbow's most successful to date. The rest of the band and the string section are off stage. Garvey is off his face.
"I can see the papers tomorrow," says Garvey, in between chuckles and sips. "elbow = shit."
The audience of the Esplanade laughs along, for neither the first nor the last time. elbow are in Singapore as part of the Mosaic Music Festival, an eclectic celebration of world music. This year has brought in, among others, 80s synth pop legends OMD, Aussie folk stars The John Butler trio and Japanese post-rock experimentalists Toe. Prodigies, performers and perfectionists from all parts of the globe have descended upon the Esplanade. As have five unlikely heroes from the north of England.
The wood-paneled amphitheatre oozes atmosphere. The acoustics are rich and the lighting gentle. It's a magnificent hall, though perhaps a tad too classy to be truly rock 'n roll. Perhaps a bit too polished for five indie boys from Bury, Manchester.
Garvey has been tanking up all evening. He started with pints of stout and has moved on to large whiskies. This isn't an indication of how rock 'n roll the band are. Because quite clearly, they are anything but. They are just regular blokes who've spent the last 20 years pulling pints, dreaming dreams and crafting wonderful music.
The show begins with a keyboard loop from The Birds, the opening track of their latest album. Drummer Richard Jupp adds his light touch to the hypnotic groove as Garvey leans into the mic and raises both arms, preacher-style. A gravelly-voiced northerner transformed into a weeping angel.
Having spent decades languishing in critical acclaim and cult adulation, elbow's star went nova in 2007, when their masterpiece, The Seldom Seen Kid scooped the Mercury Prize, won Ivor Novello Awards and catapulted them to festival headlining stardom.
"We had this blind faith that we'd one day make it," said Garvey in a South Bank Show interview. This despite being dropped from Island records after recording an album that wasn't released. Despite living on benefits and working in bars. Despite success coming in slow increments over 20 long years.
They begin softly, with Mirrorball and Bones of you, planting "the kind of kiss that wouldn't wake a baby" on the audience. Snowflakes of green light dance to the harmony. As immersive as it is, it is an intensity that is difficult to sustain. Which is why Garvey brings us back to earth by cracking jokes.
He announces that he's nervous and intends on getting drunk. As with most concerts in these parts, the crowd is heavy with expats. Most, like me, would've been glad to grab a glass or five of whatever the singer was having. But Singapore thrives on setting rules that are to be followed. Drinking at a rock 'n roll gig may be allowed, but not in this plush setting.
"Are you saving the world at 8?" shouts a fan, quoting from 2007's Audience with the Pope. "Big words them," grins Garvey. A roadie brings more drinks. Another wheels on a set of congos. Garvey introduces them both with embarrassing anecdote and smirks as they blush.
Guitarist Mark Potter relishes taking the band's sound to arenas, though he admits the challenge of keeping the show intimate. "An elbow gig feels like a family party... on the last tour we dressed the room in red velvet to add warmth and soul to the experience." The band has played cathedrals, forests and contaminated beaches and performed with Manchester's hallowed Halle orchestra. While they revel in creating a spectacle, maintaining that connection with fans is of equal import.
The crowd chants the refrain from Grounds for Divorce, while bassist Pete Turner lays down a rhythm that is both stomping and laidback. "There was never a temptation to put image ahead of the music," he says of their early days. "A lot of musicians we love like Talk Talk and Spiritualized were musicians first. To us that's far more important, especially in terms of longevity."
Guitarist Potter snarls out a riff and the sedentary audience in this civilized setting gets to its feet and does something quite unexpected. It rocks out.
There is much to distinguish elbow from a generation of shoegazing northern bands. The delicate mix of melody and soundscape, the sincerity of emotion and the everyman quality of its players. In their hands, the melancholy becomes joyous, the reflective becomes collective and the haunting becomes heavenly.
The band runs through some softer tunes from Build a Rocket Boys, their latest multi-platinum record, filled with vignettes from elbow's youth in Bury. It is an album filled with quiet optimism and a sound palette that is almost cinematic. A band at the height of its powers recalling a time when there was "nothing to be proud of. And nothing to regret. All of that to make as yet."
At one point, the players shed their instruments and reach for strange gadgets. The mood remains jovial and the music stays exquisite. They blend organic percussion with programmed samples. On their South Bank show interview, Craig Potter demonstrated how to capture unique sounds by dropping things on pianos. Guy Garvey cites DJ Shadows's seminal 1996 release Endtroducing and its use of loops as a major influence on their early work. There is far more to elbow than their indie-folk exterior would suggest.
Garvey does a call and answer whistle for the opening of Lippy Kids and the audience responds with delight. During Weather to Fly the band gathers around the keyboard and raises a toast to the audience. Garvey jokes that he always wanted to be a newsreader, because he hates wearing trousers. He then opts to sing the news and launches into a refrain. "Loads of bastards rich, loads of bastards dead." Clearly the drinks have hit their spot.
"The main reason we've stayed together is the fact that we make each other laugh." says drummer Richard Jupp. "We also have a huge amount of respect for each other as musicians... we love hanging out together and enjoying each others sick sense of humour."
If only more bands dropped their swagger and posturing and invested more in their sound. Garvey points into the crowd like the awkward rock star he is, waves and nods at those in the cheaper seats and acknowledges a few evangelically raised hands.
He calls out the name of a Singaporean fan, asks her to stand, holds up a painting that she sent them and proclaims it will be up in their practice room in Manchester. He singles out a lady called Kath in the front row, who has sung along to every tune and gives her his copy of the setlist. Making someone's night appears to be part of Garvey's job description.
And so it goes. Playful banter followed by heartfelt melody. This band of imbibers have produced an elbow brand of beer, sold online with proceeds going to charity. Alas, there are no samples for sale at this gig. The audience has to settle for getting drunk on the sound.
They wheel on trumpets and blast them theatrically for the intro of Starlings. They then settle into some gentler songs from early albums like Scattered Black and White and Station Approach. When they play the triumphant One Day like Today, with the violins ascending and the vocals soaring, one wonders about the theme to the 2012 Olympics that elbow have penned and just finished recording. Could it possibly be as anthemic as this?
The beautiful venue transforms into a song and the audience wraps itself in choruses and chords and lovingly rendered imagery. The performers weave their magic. The audience has a laugh and is moved to tears. The lights go down and the band smile their goodbyes.
We come to the singer's favourite song, Dear Friends, which he describes as yet another excuse for a drink. Garvey gazes into the crowd like a comic looking for someone to pick on. A girl in the back row raises her hand. He holds his palm out to her, smiles and croons the opening lines. "Dear Friends. You are Angels and Drunks. You are Magi."
On a night like this, in this very city, elbow are all of the above.