Music Review: Elbow and John Grant at the Genting Arena, Birmingham

Music Review: Elbow and John Grant at the Genting Arena, Birmingham

Kieran Lewis reviews Elbow’s concert at the Genting Arena, and makes the case for giving them a listen.

Let me preface this by saying that this was not a show I expected to be reviewing for a student publication. Don’t get me wrong, I love Elbow, but I am also acutely aware that – as evidenced by the demographic as I enter the venue – their music is more likely to be enjoyed by the parents of Pi’s readership than any student. Despite this, by the time the veteran Manchester band and collaborator John Grant leave the stage, I feel I have no choice but to make the case for giving them a listen anyway.

Michigan-born, Reykjavik-based Grant is first up this evening and my relative ignorance of anything he has ever produced, aside from his recently-released duet with Elbow’s Guy Garvey, proves no obstacle to my appreciation of what is a genuinely compelling set. It is clear from the first track that the singer-songwriter trades in an idiosyncratic brand of wit and does not mince his words. Relatively simple musical arrangements provide the canvas for candid explorations of an apparently turbulent life so far. Grant’s rich baritone tackles anxiety and acceptance of his sexuality, all while opening his set with a lyric about hemorrhoid commercials, but no one is questioning it.

When the headliners arrive, the bar is already far higher than it usually is by the time an opening act leaves the stage. Fortunately, however, few can compete with Guy Garvey and company in a live setting. The negligible level of production needed to make the 43-year-old’s voice sound like it does on the group’s seven studio albums is evident from the first note of the set opener, Starlings. From there, Elbow’s setlist takes some unexpected turns, much to the delight of the 10,000 fans who have defied the snow to witness it.

The band is well over 20 years old, but their relatively late arrival into the mainstream with 2008’s Mercury Prize-winning The Seldom Seen Kid has meant that the three excellent albums that preceded it have often been neglected on tour. No such bad luck tonight though, as Leaders of the Free World, from the 2005 album of the same name, is the first of many deeper cuts. Later comes the poignant Fugitive Motel from 2003’s Cast of Thousands, and Any Day Now, the very first song from the band’s intriguingly experimental debut, Asleep in the Back. Happily, these older numbers ring out with all the exuberance of Elbow’s post-2008 discography and provide an interesting contrast to the later material in terms of arrangement and lyrical content alike.

Garvey’s inexhaustible ability to befriend thousands of people at a time is also very much on display tonight. From some jolly self-deprecation when his amp doesn’t cooperate to the orchestration of an improbably successful Mexican wave in solidarity with a fan complaining aloud about her wet, snowy feet, he almost makes the arena feel like his local. By the tail end of the set, the frontman has even taken on the role of choirmaster, which he pulls off with surprising success. First instructing us to repeat the various ‘woahs’ that precede Grounds for Divorce, Garvey eventually gets the assembled masses harmonising over the first chord of One Day Like This, but not before the reappearance of John Grant. The re-working of new album track Kindling (Fickle Flame) into a duet is a beautiful demonstration of the skill of the opener and the headliners alike. Both have a knack for a particularly earnest kind of communication through their work and that is reason enough to listen up, regardless of your age.

Featured Image Credit: Peter Kaminski

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