ELBOW and JOHN GRANT - London o2 Arena 07 March 2018
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a ‘support’ act wipe the floor with the headliner ; and in a sense, tonight feels like a handing over of the baton to the greater talent.
If nothing else, and this may sound a little harsh to some, John Grant is supporting, and in some respects, propping up Elbow. It’s also undoubtedly true that after a relatively quiet year working on a new record and playing the occasional show, John Grant is a big draw for many people tonight ; and for us, and many others, John Grant is playing with Elbow following on after as an extra. We actually debated if we should go home after him ; good as Elbow are, if John Grant is artistically as potent as powerful as absinthe or corrosive acid, Elbow are a cup of tea.
At 7.25 exactly, Grant comes to the stage with no sense that he is anything other than headlining ; there’s an assured self-belief coupled with a tight and fluid band that masters the material, and a confidence that only comes with the knowledge that he is in control of his abilities. Though it is a short 50 minutes – which means we don’t get some of his best material – each of the songs roars. The songs are laced with a passionate and acerbic snark, and self-loathing that strips away pretence and flowery language. There’s many of us who hear some of these words, and we’ve been there, and feel that he is one of us armed with a golden voice and a piano. His band whip up a sound that is, sonically, very similar to a blend of superior torch songs and John Carpenters pulsing, dark synth soundtracks from the golden age of horror, with Grant as the cohesive ringleader, and each song a self-contained story of terrible love and glorious humour : the natural human reaction to disaster is laughter and mockery, to combat the power of reality with a deflating smile. As much power comes from how we respond as it does from what happens to us in the first place.
The rarely played “I Hate This Town” is a song that I haven’t seen him play before, but also, one of the finest songs I’ve ever heard ; chock full of profanity, but also, the terrible fear that you have when you split up with someone – that you’ll see them shopping in the city centre months later when you have a broken heart. The song explains exactly why I left the Midlands.
Not long after he comes on, the venue is unusually packed ; and undoubtedly Grant being able to see out the Royal Albert Hall on his own has brought a lot of extra bums on seats tonight. It feels more like watching a short headline set than a support act – Grant and his band play like they own the stage and deserve to close the show. Certainly, the way the audience sings along with the lowkey verses in closer (and decade old album track) “Queen of Denmark” you wouldn’t know it wasn’t a huge number one hit in heaven. His new album is finished, and it may be that, in future, these are the stages he normally plays. I can hope so.
Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
I Hate This Town
It Doesn’t Matter To Him
Pale Green Ghosts
Queen Of Denmark
After that, Elbow can’t help but be a mild comedown. On their night they can be a powerful band that encompasses many human emotions. But, barely a year after “Little Fictions” (and playing just two songs from it), and somewhat on the back foot creatively with a Greatest Hits album as an act of consolidation, and still somewhat embedding Alex Reeves as their new drummer, this tour feels like it could be perhaps the first stumbling sidestep in their otherwise steady ascendant. Of course, any band that gets to do this for a living and is still able to sell 20,000 tickets on a Wednesday can’t be doing so badly. Tonight feels a bit like a retrenchment, a confirmation, and a way of buying / obtaining some breathing space for the band, a reminder of their former status and a nearly cynical commercial move. That said, Elbow are also looking back. Like other bands, there’s a core of songs you might expect to see, and there would be trouble if they weren’t played, and they get played by and large. “One Day Like This”, “Grounds For Divorce”, “The Birds”, “Magnificent”, “Lippy Kids”, are all in the final salvo as a way of perhaps reminding us who they are. But sadly, “One Day Like This” overshadows almost everything they do. Whilst the rest of the set is strong and the songs themselves are strong, there’s little – at least in the early part of the set – that lifts the audience beyond passive observers. The last time I was here, three months ago for Depeche Mode, the set was paced and designed to create an evening of non stop miserable euphoria ; something Elbow simply cannot achieve. We’re sort of comparing apples and oranges here, two very different acts with two different audiences and two different approaches. But the O2 feels too big a room for Elbow to fill tonight.
Whilst Guy Garvey is undoubtedly a persuasive front man, who makes it looks effortless though it isn’t, the strength of a personality and charm itself can’t hide that not all the songs are deserving of a room this size. The songs are often smaller and more intimate, and also, erm, not good enough. Not memorable enough. And whilst perhaps in a room of 5,000 something like “Fugitive Motel” could be a fine treat, when you’re three hundred feet from the stage, it’s going to feel far more passive. There’s nothing as strong and as immediate as “Armageddon It” in the arsenal. Given that this is the last night of the tour – and the final Elbow show for some time – it feels more disconnected and alien than it should and less of a glorious closing of the door for a while. It’s a good evening of important music, but the room is too big and we felt too far away from it.
Elbow are closing their Greatest Hits tour and in some ways, closing the book on this phase of their life, moving from their glory years to the next stage of a steady existence. I wouldn’t be surprised if next year, it’s John Grant in the headline slot.
The Bones Of You
Leaders Of The Free World
Fly Boy Blue / Lunette
Tower Crane Driver
Any Day Now
New York Morning
Grounds For Divorce
Kindling (with John Grant)
One Day Like This