Elbow review – an embrace of ferocious tenderness

Ian Gittins
‘Fall in love with me’ … Guy Garvey of Elbow. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Redferns/Getty Images

It’s still hard to process the fact that Elbow are now bona fide members of rock’s A league. Once seemingly perennial nearly-men, they are now such a regular fixture in Britain’s enormodome arenas that shows such as this rare, three-night run in Hammersmith appear positively intimate.

Their rise is all the more remarkable for having been such a dogged slow burn. Elbow are not a band who have ever dealt in creative quantum leaps. They do what they do. Over the course of 20 years and seven albums, their gentle music has rarely veered from its understated, low-key, exquisitely meticulous emotional template.

This steadfastness and reliability has naturally inspired vast loyalty among their ever increasing following. Padding on stage looking, as ever, like a mildly hungover darts player en route to the oche, singer Guy Garvey is greeted by a roar that sounds as if it might take the roof off. His battered, world-weary visage is immediately wreathed in one of the night’s many beaming smiles.

The recent No 1 album, Little Fictions, is one more big-hearted collection of incurably romantic minor-key musings shot through with a ferocious tenderness. Elbow’s songs and characters have been around the block, but hope springs eternal. Within a minute of tonight’s opener, Gentle Storm, Garvey is prowling the stage like a bruised bear, imploring a paramour to “fall in love with me”.

Elbow’s often surprisingly complex musical arrangements are a thrumming sound bed for Garvey’s fierce and fervent lyrical ruminations. His gruff growl can’t conceal his poet’s love for language. On The Bones of You he is “charging around with a juggernaut brow” before being stopped in his tracks, transported by a chance memory of a former lover.

Garvey’s bluff everyman persona is crucial to Elbow’s appeal. The songs may voice the inarticulate speech of the heart, but in between songs he works the crowd like a virtuoso standup comic. “Can you all wave?” he asks, describing a windscreen-wiper arc with his arm. “If you’re too cool to do it, well, just do it anyway.”

This self-effacing nature guards the rare intensity that burns at the heart of Elbow’s only superficially mellow music. Great Expectations is a shoulder-heaving sigh of nostalgic longing, a sepia reverie that manages to include the words “Stockport supporters club”. Little Fictions, written from the child’s-eye view that Garvey adopts so easily, has a gorgeous line about a parental row “setting our tiny teeth on edge”.

Elbow are best at their most vivacious and most fragile: the swelling Lippy Kids, a wondrous evocation of the arrogance and angst of adolescence, sees the entire Apollo bellowing its halting chorus of “Build a rocket, boys!” As ever with this ragged, roguish band, it’s all about empathy and human kindness. At the age of 43, Guy Garvey is about to become a dad. It’s safe to say it’s a role he was born to fill.

• At the Apollo, Hammersmith, London, until 6 March. Tickets: 0844 249 4300. Then touring.

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