Live Review: Elbow with John Grant at 9:30 Club, Washington DC – 11th May 2014

By on Thursday, 15th May 2014 at 2:00 pm

Header photo by Cheryl Demas

Living as I do in a bit of a musical vortex, I often have to travel long distances to see bands and artists I love. It’s sometimes difficult to choose which shows are most worth the time and expense, but in the case of Elbow, my decision was easy. They’ve been on my list since I fell in love with their 2008 Mercury Prize-winning album ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ several years ago, and they proved their travel-worthiness once again last Sunday at the 9:30 Club in Washington DC. (Of course, it didn’t hurt that I got to attend the show with one of my favourite partners in crime, fellow TGTF contributor Cheryl Demas!)

This show was the first night of Elbow’s North American tour and also my first experience with their guest act, American singer/songwriter John Grant. I did a bit of homework on Grant before Sunday’s show, and I was drawn in when I discovered that his 2010 debut album ‘Queen of Denmark’ was recorded with band members from Midlake, who I had the pleasure of seeing in DC last month (read that review here). Grant recorded his second album, the highly acclaimed ‘Pale Green Ghosts’, in his adopted home of Reykjavik, Iceland, and he was accompanied on stage Sunday night by Icelandic guitarist Pétur Hallgrimsson, who also appeared on that record.

John Grant with Pétur Hallgrimsson 11 May 2014

I’ll admit that I was initially repelled by the bleak, cheerless tone of Grant’s lyrics, which seemed an odd contrast to the effusive romanticism of Elbow lyricist Guy Garvey. Only the hypnotic timbre of Grant’s baritone made the brutal songs ‘You Don’t Have To’ and ‘Where Dreams Go to Die’ even remotely palatable. But there were moments of sardonic humour, in the quirky ‘Sigourney Weaver’ and the almost upbeat ‘GMF’ for example, that kept the set from becoming completely mired in its own misery. By the time Grant closed with the defiantly spirited ‘Queen of Denmark’, energy in the audience was building in anticipation of the headline act.

John Grant at 930 Club 11 May 2014

After the emotionally and musically ponderous opening set, it was refreshing to hear the warm instrumental strains of ‘This Blue World’ as Elbow took the stage. They wasted no time highlighting their exquisite new album ‘The Takeoff and Landing of Everything’, proceeding directly into ‘Charge’, then touching on ‘Fly Boy Blue/Lunette’ and ‘Real Life’ early in the set. Before singing ‘New York Morning’, Garvey took a special moment to acknowledge Lois and Dennis, the legendary New York music fans who appeared in the recent video for the song and who were seated in the guest balcony for this show.

Elbow at 930 Club 11 May 2014

I was particularly keen to hear the new songs in live arrangement, as the studio recordings are so large and richly textured. The five regular band members were accompanied in this streamlined setup by only two string players and no live brass, but they did apparently use a backing track to fill in the sound. Aside from a few opening night glitches and miscues, the arrangements were fairly true to Elbow’s high standard form; especially so in the favourable acoustics of the 9:30 Club. From our vantage point at the barrier, Cheryl and I had an especially nice view of guitarist Mark Potter, and I spent a good portion of the show ogling his array of instruments.

Mark Potter at 930 Club 11 May 2014

Mark Potter at 930 Club 11 May 2014











Mark Potter at 930 Club 11 May 2014

Because I spent my weekend literally “cramming commitments like cats in a sack”, I was happy to hear my personal favourite Elbow tune ‘The Bones of You’ early in the set list. The band saved its other old favourite songs for later in the show, including ‘Scattered Black And Whites’, which they kindly dedicated to an Irish superfan called Gareth, who was desperate to hear it but had evidently been asleep in the back until that point in the show. (See what I did there?) When the song was introduced, Gareth enthusiastically charged his way to the stage and proceeded to view the performance through the lens of his camera phone, but the sheer beauty of the song left us no choice but to share in his ebullient joy.

The end of the set proper emulated a large scale emotional crescendo, modulating from the elegantly understated ‘Mirrorball’ through the evolutionary progression of ‘The Birds’ to the heavy pounding rhythm of ‘Grounds for Divorce’ before resolving to the poignant and bittersweet beauty of ‘My Sad Captains’. It was a masterfully effective sequence, designed to leave us wanting more and achieving the effect in spectacular fashion.

Guy Garvey at 930 Club 11 May 2014

The all-but-obligatory encore naturally included an element of audience participation, and the 9:30 Club crowd happily obliged Garvey’s requests to join him in echoing the ubiquitous “Build a rocket boys!” line from ‘Lippy Kids’ and harmonising the glorious ending to ‘One Day Like This’. We may not get another night like this with Elbow for quite some time, but those lovely harmonies will undoubtedly see us right until the next occasion.

Pete Turner at 930 Club 11 May 2014

Photo by Cheryl Demas

Craig Potter at 930 Club 11 May 2014

Photo by Cheryl Demas

Richard Jupp at 930 Club 11 May 2014

After the cut: Elbow’s set list.

Elbow Set List:
The Bones of You
Fly Boy Blue/Lunette
Real Life (Angel)
The Night Will Always Win
New York Morning
The Loneliness of A Tower Crane Driver
Great Expectations
Scattered Black and Whites
The Birds
Grounds for Divorce
My Sad Captains
Lippy Kids
One Day Like This

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One Response

10:37 pm
20th May 2014

We were at the show and enjoyed it quite a bit. My sister was brought to the show with no prior knowledge of the band and was duly impressed.
Thanks for your review and photos.

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