Sometimes the worst situations make for the best experiences. While "worst" may be overstating things, Elbow‘s show at the Hiro Ballroom on Thursday (11.3) looked like it was going to crash and burn at the two-thirds through the set.
The band was in town to do press for their new album, Leaders of the Free World, and worked in a gig while they were here. It wasn’t your average show. The Hiro is tiny (somewhere between the Mercury Lounge and Bowery Ballroom), they didn’t have any of the stuff they normally bring with them on tour: the elaborate light-show, their own instruments and equipment, or any roadies. (The latter, guitarist Mark Potter’s father-in-law came down from Boston to be the band’s guitar tech for the night.) Also, singer Guy Garvey had twisted his ankle the week prior and was walking with a cane.
As the band started "Newborn," from Elbow’s debut, Asleep at the Back, Potter’s amp started to futz out. They kept playing while he twiddled knobs, but it soon became apparent that it had died. Guy joked with the audience a bit and then they took a break to switch amps. The fun of rented equipment! They started it again and it still wasn’t working, so "Newborn" ended up being played without Potter’s textured lead parts, but it was still powerful.
At this point, while Potter and his father-in-law tried to sort out the amp problem, Garvey turned the show into an impromptu Q&A session, taking questions from the audience. Most of the inquiries were being shouted at the same time and, let’s face it, the people prone to shout out questions at shows aren’t usually the kind of people who have good questions to ask: "Are you gonna play ________?" "Where are you staying?" "Freebird!" (not a question) "Does your cane have a knife in it?" "Why are you called Elbow?"
I was gonna shout "What did you have for dinner?," not that that’s any better, but I had completely lost my voice from a cold I caught while in San Francisco. I digress. Garvey had some questions of his own, surveying the audience with "How many of you have children?" (Not many.) "How many of you use dye to cover up your gray hair?" (A few more.) A genuinely nice guy, Garvey is a handsome in a burly bear sort of way, very charming, very intelligent. He’s also a great lyricist, with a voice that can drop panties. The crowd — a mix of guestlisted industry types and a lot of true fans — didn’t seem to mind the wait.
Anyway, the show. More after the jump…
Apart from the aforementioned show-stopping amp problem, the sound was really really good. I’ve been impressed all three times I’ve seen a show at the Hiro and wouldn’t hesitate to go back, seven dollar beers or not. It would’ve been better with their light show — we’ll have to wait till February for that I guess — but Elbow have no problem holding an audience rapt on their own. They played pretty much everything you’d want to hear (everything but "Not a Job"), though I wanted to hear more from the new album, "The Stops," "The Everthere" and "Picky Bugger" in particular. The new songs, which are among the peppiest material the band have ever done, were the real highlights: the crowd provided the West Side Story handclaps for "Mexican Standoff"; the album’s first single "Forget Myself"; and the propulsive title track.
Before they played "Leaders of the Free World," Garvey told the audience why they chose this overtly-political song (their first) as the title track. "We’re not a political band, but sometimes you just have to raise your hand and let people know where you stand. And it’s great to be in a city where the vast majority agree with us." Much hooting and hollering and concurring followed.
No one seemed to mind that Garvey sat on a stool for the whole show — he usually does this anyway, actually. Before I forget, I should mention that Garvey plays guitar like nobody else I’ve ever seen. (In a popular band at least.) He plays his lead parts, like the solo in "Mexican Standoff," with his index finger, not a pick. To watch him, it didn’t even seem he was hitting the strings with much force, but I wasn’t up that close.
A couple other things. Above the stage at the Asian-themed Hiro is a Shanghai Dragon’s head that blows smoke. Garvey would occasionally ask it questions, and it would bellow back in an echo-y voice (provided by their soundman). Very funny stuff. Also, one of the songs — "Powder Blue" I think — was dedicated to some newlywed fans in the audience the band had met at the airport. What amazingly nice fellows Elbow genuinely are. Why aren’t they hugely popular? Then again, if they were, we wouldn’t have the chance to see them play an intimate show like this.
The setlist, cribbed and amended a bit from The Modern Age (who also has pictures): Station Approach / Fallen Angel / Red / Mexican Stand-Off / The Good
Day / My Very Best / Great Expectations / Fugitive Motel / Leaders of
the Free World / Forget Myself / Buddha with Mace / New Born / Scattered Black & Whites / Puncture
Repair / Powder Blue / Grace Under Pressure
Picture swiped from Ultrahi’s Flickr photostream.