On Going to See Elbow

So, almost two weeks ago, I went to see Elbow in concert.

Elbow, for people coming late to my life, is the Mancunian band who won the Mercury Prize last year for their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, followed by two Ivor Novello Awards for “One Day Like This” and “Grounds for Divorce.” Their first album, Asleep in the Back, came out in 2001, and it was followed by Cast of Thousands in 2003 and Leaders of the Free World in 2005. Their songs have an emotional and creative sonic texture unlike anything else, and I feel like Guy Garvey writes lyrics for me personally.

For the longest time, Elbow was my secret band. I discovered them with Cast of Thousands, probably due to a review in MOJO or Q, and I bought the album at the same time I bought Snow Patrol’s Final Straw, and it was Final Straw that I probably listened to more at the time. (In an ironic turn, I cannot stand Snow Patrol now.) Then came Leaders of the Free World and their cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” They sort of dropped off my radar, until Memorial Day last year when I was at Best Buy and saw The Seldom Seen Kid there, which I bought instantly.

(That was an interesting Memorial Day, for many reasons. Among them — I pitched an editor on an interesting short story for an anthology that ultimately didn’t happen.)

The Seldom Seen Kid became my album of summer 2008. Not even Coldplay’s Viva La Vida could dethrone it. The moment I knew that The Seldom Seen Kid had me hooked was when I was listening to “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver,” really listening to it, and the emotional climax of the song hit me, just so.

I became an evangelist for Elbow. I’d burn CDs. I’d push them on my friends. “What Coldplay would be, if Coldplay had guts” is how I described Elbow to one friend.

I never thought I’d see them in person, though.

They were supposed to appear on David Letterman’s show a few weeks ago, but that was cancelled at the last minute. Then, in late July and early August, they were touring as a support act for Coldplay. On August 4th, they played a headlining show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC.

So I went. Everyone needs adventure in their lives, and my adventure was going to be going to see Elbow live and in person. 🙂

There was this awesome little Irish pub in the neighborhood called Duffy’s Irish Pub, where before the concert I had Guinness and this incredible dish called “The Irish Burrito,” which was corned beef, cabbage, and potato in a burrito shell, topped with cheese and a mustard sauce. It could have fed an army, honestly.

I’d never been to the 9:30 Club before, so I didn’t know what to expect. It’s a small-ish venue, with a stage, a standing-room-only floor, and a small balcony that rings the floor. All told, I think the venue has a capacity of maybe 500 people. It was dark, and it was crowded, and it was really hot; there was little air circulation. I was about twenty feet back from the stage, and I will swear until my dying day that I saw Pete Townsend of The Who in the crowd.

As for the concert itself, it was wonderful.

The opening act was Jesca Hoop, an ex-pat Californian now living in Manchester, who played a brief acoustic set after being introduced by Guy Garvey.

Then, at 9:30, Elbow took the stage. Craig Potter’s keyboards were set up at the back, along with Richard Jupp’s drums, which were separated off by sound baffles. (This appears to be normal; for The Seldom Seen Kid: Live at Abbey Road, his drum kit was walled off in a different room.) The opening song was “Starlings,” the opening track from The Seldom Seen Kid, and as a recorded backing track started up, two violinists took the stage. This was followed by the five members of the band, who took to the stage at the front, each with a trumpet. After blaring the trumpets — at which point the lights came up slightly — they took their positions and their instruments, and the concert began.

Guy Garvey addressed the crowd throughout the nearly two hour set. Sometimes he told stories about what songs meant — like how “The Stops” is about a painful break-up, how “Leaders of the Free World” is about George Bush, how “Weather to Fly” is about the band. He told a story about the first time the band played the 9:30 Club, how his voice gave out when they began to play “Newborn” and a fan named Elaine jumped up on stage and finished off the set.

The crowd shouted out requests between songs. I remember hearing requests for “Fugitive Motel” and “Red.” I shouted out a request for “Grace Under Pressure” — I would have loved to have seen that live and participated in the sing-along verse — “We believe in love, so fuck you.” 😉

The audience was really into the concert, and there were people who definitely knew their Elbow. “The Stops” was done, oddly, as a sing-along, with Guy Garvey leading the audience on the chorus of “Don’t look down.” And, of course, everyone chimed in on “Grounds for Divorce” and “One Day Like This.” 😎

I could have listened to them for hours. They played all the songs I expected them to play, as their setlist was a slightly trimmed version of what they had played in Europe over the spring. I would have liked to have heard some others, like “Fugitive Motel” or “Not a Job” or “Grace Under Pressure” or “Great Expectations,” but I’ll gladly take what I got to hear. I wasn’t unhappy with anything they played. I was really quite pleased.

I saw a few people from work at the concert, which was both surprising and fun.

Before I left, I bought an Elbow t-shirt. I’ll never wear it, I just wanted the souvenir. 🙂

It was a fantastic night, a night of music from a band that I’ve loved for a long time and thought I would never see, in a city that I love and don’t visit as often as I should. Everyone should see Elbow, and everyone should visit DC, and I got to combine the two in a night that is certainly in my top three for 2009. 🙂

Then, last Monday, I found a recording of the set that someone in the audience had recorded from the balcony. I’ve heard a lot of concert bootlegs over the years, and this recording is among the best I’ve heard. The only way it could have been better is if it had come from the soundboard itself. I’ve listened to the recording a few times now, and every time I do I get a dopey grin on my face as it takes me back to the inside of the 9:30 Club that night. I won’t listen to it often — I don’t want the magic to fade away — but it’s nice to have a record of that night that I can turn to.

That’s the story. Allyn going to see Elbow, on August 4th. Wouldn’t trade it for anything.


  • Starlings
  • The Bones of You
  • Mirrorball
  • Leaders of the Free World
  • The Stops
  • Mexican Standoff
  • Grounds for Divorce
  • The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver
  • Switching Off
  • Newborn
  • Weather to Fly
  • One Day Like This
  • Station Approach
  • Scattered Black and Whites

Published by Allyn

A writer, editor, journalist, sometimes coder, occasional historian, and all-around scholar, Allyn Gibson is the writer for Diamond Comic Distributors' monthly PREVIEWS catalog, used by comic book shops and throughout the comics industry, and the editor for its monthly order forms. In his over ten years in the industry, Allyn has interviewed comics creators and pop culture celebrities, covered conventions, analyzed industry revenue trends, and written copy for comics, toys, and other pop culture merchandise. Allyn is also known for his short fiction (including the Star Trek story "Make-Believe,"the Doctor Who short story "The Spindle of Necessity," and the ReDeus story "The Ginger Kid"). Allyn has been blogging regularly with WordPress since 2004.

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