Guy Garvey

To someone who grew up when the hit parade and radio playlists were experienced in common by everyone, the fragmentation of the music scene in recent decades can seem depressing. Music is no longer something enjoyed in common: instead, jostled next to each other on bus or tube but sealed inside our headphones we listen to our own music, and rarely  is someone heard singing on the street.

Which is why seeing Elbow live at the Arena in Liverpool on Thursday was such a treat.  The thousands gathered in the Arena spanned the generations – I was  there with my daughter who, though we have our distinct musical tastes, loves some of the music my generation has passed to hers, and shares a passion for Elbow. More than that, though, is the fact that Elbow frontman Guy Garvey is on a mission: in the songs he writes, and at the shows, he draws us in to share feelings of lost friends and lost times, but also to celebrate the things that make life good – and to sing.

In a profile written for The Guardian, Dave Simpson quoted Pete Jobson of Manchester band I Am Kloot, who has known Garvey for 15 years:

When he performs he’s always asking, ‘Is everybody OK?’ He’s genuinely concerned. He realises the emotional weight of what he is singing about so he’ll lighten it up with a joke. He can tell stories all night but he has real reason for what he does. He’s on the side of the good: community, family values. He sings about what he needs to sing about. It’s courageous, heart-on-your-sleeve stuff.

In less than 15 minutes at the Arena, Guy Garvey had ten thousand people in the palm of his hand.  He only has to say ‘hands’ and everyone has their arms raised, hands waving.  He chats and banters with the huge crowd – as intimate and affable as the guy standing next to you at the bar. It’s as if he regards any member of the audience as someone with whom it might be worth spending a little time, sharing a joke or an anecdote. (A friend tells me that, two night earlier at the Philharmonic, Van Morrison said barely a word all night, and walked off stage at the end of his show without a word and so abruptly that even the members of his band seemed nonplussed.)


Elbow’s transformation into perhaps the most widely loved British band must be surprising even to its five members. First performing together in 1990 at The Corner Pin pub near Ramsbottom in Greater Manchester, they played for eleven years before they even made an album. Strikingly, they are still the same five guys: lead vocalist and lyricist Guy Garvey, guitarist Mark Potter, keyboardist Craig Potter, bassist Pete Turner and drummer Richard Jupp.  It wasn’t until 2008 with the release of their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, that they got their big breakthrough.  Sales of The Seldom Seen Kid and its follow-up Build A Rocket Boys! soared after their performance at this year’s Olympic closing ceremony.

On this tour – billed as a farewell to fans before the band take a break from live performances for a year to spend time with their families and record a new album – the five members of the band are augmented by a string quartet and a brass section (Elle Bow and We Blow, joked Garvey).

They open with ‘High Ideals’ with its theme of middle-aged retreat from the certainties and enticements of youth, before launching into ‘The Bones of You’, a testament to the power of music and memory:

So I’m there
Charging around with a juggernaut brow
Overdraft, speeches and deadlines to make
Cramming commitments like cats in a sack
Telephone burn and a purposeful gait

When out of a doorway the tentacles stretch
Of a song that I know
And the world moves in slow-mo
Straight to my head
like the first cigarette of the day

And it’s you, and it’s May
And we’re sleeping through the day
And I’m five years ago
And three thousand miles away

Do I have time? A man of my calibre
Stood in the street like a sleepwalking teenager
And I dealt with this years ago
I took a hammer to every memento
But image on image like beads on a rosary
pulled through my head as the music takes hold
and the sickener hits; I can work till I break
but I love the bones of you
That, I will never escape

Memory is central to the lyrics that Garvey writes for Elbow.  One of seven kids from a working-class family, he grew up in Bury, Greater Manchester.  A review of the last Elbow record Build a Rocket Boys! on the NorthernLine website said this:

Guy Garvey … comes back here from time to time. ‘Here’ being his memories of days gone by. Usually days of childhood. Days of love, loss, betrayal, bullying, heartache, bruised shins, skinned knees… he shelters amongst the angst, evoking our own memories of a time when life was simpler, less hurried, slightly more brutal, but, never-the-less somewhere that we return to again and again, in our hearts and minds. …

When he’s singing, Garvey is soulful and emotional; between songs he is a wisecracking, self-effacing all-round ordinary bloke. His manager says he sees the good in everybody. Just as he’s about to launch into the next song, someone  yells, ‘I’ve got a tattoo’ and Guy pauses to check it out, learn the guy’s name and why the tattoo is special, before turning back to the stage saying, ‘Give us a squeeze’.

Elbow performing at The Liverpool Echo Arena 29th November 2012

The next song turns out to be a rare outing for ‘Grace Under Pressure’, a miniature from 2003’s Cast of Thousands.  Garvey once had the Glastonbury crowd singing it’s closing line over and over.  It never made it to the BBC broadcast:

Grace under pressure
Cooling palm across my brow
Eyes of an angel
Lay me down
We still believe in love, so fuck you

When that’s over, Garvey asks us to face the stage, raise our arms, wiggle our fingers and shout ‘twinkle’.  It’s at this point that the white curtain that arched the stage dissolves and a dazzling lightshow leads, appropriately into ‘Mirrorball’, another unabashed hymn to the power of love:

You make the moon our mirrorball
The streets an empty stage
The city’s sirens, violins
Everything has changed

So lift off love
All down to you, dear
And lift off love
All down to you, dear

Then we get to hear a new song,’ Charge’ that Garvey says will be on the next album, but by that time may sound different. It is, he said in an interview for BBC Radio 6, ‘about an old guy in a bar full of young people. He’s talking bitterly to the kids around him.  He reminds them that his generation designed the music they listen to, and fought for the laws that protect their freedoms’.

These fuckers are ignoring me:
I’m from another century.
These fuckers are ignoring me:
They’ll never learn from history…

It sounded like another powerful Elbow classic. Fittingly, ‘Leaders of the Free World’ followed, with its lyric:

The leaders of the free world
Are just little boys throwing stones
And it’s easy to ignore
Till they’re knocking on the door of your homes

My thinking isn’t driven
But the music always gives me a lift
I’m so easy to please, yeah
But I think we dropped the baton:
Like the 60’s didn’t happen.

Passing the gun from father to feckless son
We’re climbing a landslide where only the good die young
Passing the gun from father to feckless son
We’re climbing a landslide where only the good die young

‘Grounds for Divorce’ began a sequence of songs in which Garvey has worked through the profound effect that the tragic death of a lost friend and fellow-musician, Bryan Glancy, has had on Garvey and the rest of the band.  The Seldom Seen Kid was named for Glancy, and when Elbow won the Mercury Prize for the album Garvey gave an emotional speech dedicating the prize to his memory.

There’s a hole in my neighbourhood down which of late I cannot help but fall
Mondays is for drinking to the seldom seen kid

Elbow at the Arena 2

The symphonic ‘Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver’ followed:

I must have been working the ropes
When your hand slipped from mine
Now I live off the mirrors and smoke
It’s a joke, a fix, a lie
Come on, tower crane driver
Oh so far to fall.
Send up a prayer in my name

And then came one of the most remarkable moments in a remarkable show: Guy and the band assemble at the end of the pier jutting out from the stage into the audience where they perform an a capella version of ‘The Night Will Always Win’.  ‘This is a sad song’, says Guy, ‘but it contains good advice’.   It’s another elegy to a lost friend, and one of Garvey’s most beautiful songs, combining heartfelt sentiment with no-nonsense humour:

I throw this to the wind
But what if I was right
Well, did you trust your noble dreams
And gentle expectations to the mercy of the night?
The night will always win
The night has darkness on its side
I’ll throw this to the wind

I miss your stupid face
I miss your bad advice
I tried to clothe your bones with scratches
Super 8s, exaggerated stories and old tunes

The band remain in the same spot for ‘Weather to Fly’, performed with just a simple guitar accompaniment.  It’s a song about the streets that nurtured the members of the band:

Pounding the streets where my fathers feet still
ring from the walls,
we’d sing in the doorways,
or bicker and row
just figuring how we were wired inside
Perfect weather to fly.

Midway through the song, Garvey pauses after singing the line, ‘Are we having the time of our lives?’ He says, ‘When we recorded this song, I never expected that I’d be singing that line falsetto and unaccompanied.  Is there anyone here who thinks they can do better?’ All around him hands are raised.  He picks Nina who has nominated Nathan.  Three times Guy coaxes a creditable falsetto from Nathan and then tries for one from Nina.  She’s having none of it.  But before he  returns to the stage Garvey finds time to pose for a photo with the couple.

Elbow at the Arena 4

‘Fugitive Motel’ is another beautiful song, introduced as one ‘for those separated from someone they love’:

I blow you a kiss
It should reach you tomorrow
As it flies from the other side of the world
From my room in my fugitive motel
Somewhere in the dust bowl
It flies from the other side of the world

It’s friendship again with ‘Puncture Repair’, a song that Garvey once explained as being simply about a friend being there for him when he needed him:

I leaned on you today
I regularly hurt but never say
You patched me up and sent me on my way
I leaned on you today

Elbow performing at The Liverpool Echo Arena 29th November 2012

A distinctive feature of many of the tracks on Build a Rocket Boys! is Craig Potter’s minimalist keyboards, with songs often being carried on a single piano note. That single, repeated note introduced ‘Lippy Kids’, another of Garvey’s miniature sketches of northern urban life, a yearning and poignant recollection of youth.  In ‘Lippy Kids’, Garvey sees lads ‘settling like crows’ at the corner.  It’s an image that reminds that he is a keen birdwatcher:

Lippy kids on the corner again
Lippy kids on the corner begin settling like crows
Though I never perfected that simian stroll
But the cigarette senate, it was everything then Do they know those days are golden?
Build a rocket boys!
Build a rocket boys! One long June I came down from the trees
And curbstone cool
You were freshly painted angel walking on walls
Stealing booze and hour-long hungry kisses

Garvey has said that ‘Lippy Kids’ was written as a defence of teenagers, a rejection of ‘the anti-hoody shit that goes on in the media, the thought that if you hang around on a street corner you’re a criminal. It’s quite a nostalgic thing. I’ve got a thing about growing up. I remember it being an amazing important time, so I’ve written a lot about that.’

Elbow at the Arena 1
At the close of the song, as if struck by the sheer wonderfulness of the situation, Garvey observes, ‘The reason we all enjoy getting together this way because we’re all so fucking cool’.  The band then launch into a thunderous rendition of ‘The Birds’, the middle eight, ‘What are we going to do with you’, a surging wall of sound, less delicate than the meditative version on the album:
What are we gonna do with you
Same tale every time
What are we gonna do with you
Come on inside
Looking back is for the birds

In the song an old man remembers a love affair long ago. In the middle eight we hear the voices of his carers saying: ‘What we going to do with you, come on inside, looking back is for the birds.’ Garvey has said he tried to capture the patronising way in which old people are often spoken to. ‘I suppose I’m saying it’s wrong to patronise old people and assume they haven’t felt everything that you’ve felt and remember it very clearly’.

In a lengthy piece for The Observer, Luke Bainbridge observed that:

Lyrically, Garvey tackles the bigger themes in life – love and loss, relationships and friendships, ambition and failure – but where most songwriters mine obvious seams, plucking the same basic chords on the public’s heartstrings, Garvey explores the minor notes. His lyrics poke around in grey areas, explore complex themes and overlooked emotions, and – key to Elbow’s appeal – champion the everyday.

Elbow at the Arena 3

And so we arrive at the finale, the life-affirming ‘Open Arms’ which celebrates St Bernadette’s social centre in Whitefield, north Manchester, heart of the community that nurtured Garvey and the rest of Elbow.  This is the place where his family, friends and neighbours have gathered for christenings, weddings and funerals, a place of  ‘finger rolls and folding chairs and a volley of streamers’.  It’s a place to which prodigal sons and daughters return for ‘tweaks and repairs’; it’s a place to get pissed.

The band sing, and we sing, ‘We’ve got open arms, for broken hearts’. We sing of home, community and continuity: ‘Everyone’s here’.  This is what defines an Elbow show: the inimitable Garvey-led community singing. For Garvey, you sense, the main purpose of these shows is that he should not be the only one who sings: that songs sung together are good medicine. ‘Come home again’, sing the massed voices of Liverpudlians urged on by a jovial Mancunian.

Back for the encore, the band open with ‘Starlings’, strange for the way in which the tender lyrics are scythed by blasts of brass.  After that, Garvey urges us all on the way out to fill the buckets of collectors for MAG (Mines Advisory Group),the Manchester-based charity responsible for clearing war zones of mines and munitions world wide of which Elbow are patrons.

Then – what else but the inevitable ‘One Day Like This’, the anthem that everyone who hears it takes to their hearts.  Garvey orchestrates the community singing so effectively that halfway through the band drop out, leaving the audience to sing their hearts out unaccompanied. Reviewing the concert the next day, the Liverpool Echo observed:

An evening spent at an Elbow gig should be on NHS prescription, so much better does it make you feel about, well, everything.  Two hours in their feel good company last night and the audience emerged into the frosty night energised and with a general feeling that everything was all right with the world….It takes something for any band to make an arena performance feel intimate but Elbow succeeded. That was thanks to Garvey and his easy banter with the crowd. … Part drinking buddy, part big brother he is the emotional heart of both the band and the gig.

As he left the stage, Garvey broke into an impromptu ‘All You Need Is Love’.  The crowd responded instantly, and though Guy had left they sang on:

All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need.

And so, in the Echo’s words, we emerged into the frosty night energised and with a feeling that everything was all right with the world.  The Belfast boat, lit up, was just leaving on the river.  The big wheel was a beautiful thing, empty, illuminated and slowly turning.  Somehow, despite the recession and the government’s savage cuts to the city budget, the Christmas street decorations seemed more impressive, more glittery, than ever.

Sarah took photos 4,5,7 and 8.

See also

14 thoughts on “Elbow live in Liverpool: Everyone’s here

  1. Well, I feel as if I was there Gerry. Thank you for the detailed Garvey-ness and all round consciousness of life in the north.

    The only thing I dislike about Elbow being on tour is that Guy isn’t doing his BBC 6 Music programme on Sunday nights at the moment. Well maybe tonight we’ll just sit and ‘watch’ this post.

  2. The morning after the gig in Manchester and still feeling like we were invited personally to join Guy and the band in a big family get together. Thanks for helping me to relive the many moments – you are right, everything does seem a bit more sparkly today and that’s what music can do for us – maybe it is what we all need now that politics, the law and religion seem to have crumbled away

  3. Lovely, lovely, lovely. “Cos holy cow, I love your eyes…”

    Thank you for this. Seeing Elbow live was like nothing I have experienced, except for Springsteen, and I think it is the same magic at work. Angie has it right: “everything does seem a bit more sparkly today and that’s what music can do for us”

    1. Funny, I was thinking of the Springsteen comparison – in terms not only of their ability to work a crowd, but of their sheer enjoyment of being with their audience and wanting to engage with us. It was magic.

      1. Following on from that …I’ve just read the feature on Springsteen in the current issue of Uncut in which Bruce is quoted as saying, ‘You’ve got to be an honest broker with your fans. They’re paying for something that can’t be bought – it can only be manifested, and shared.’

  4. I went to see U2 at Sheffield a couple of years ago, huge gig and Elbow were supporting them, with horns etc. and I had bought the latest album of theirs at the time and I am sad to say i never listened too much too it and their performance was lost a little in the enormity of the stadium, but then so was U2’s I felt. Its not so much a gig as an event, a gathering to worship almost, but I shall dig out that Elbow cd and load it on to my I Pod and you’re right Mr Garvey seems like a proper bloke! Still connected with his roots.
    Just a quick story that is tenuously related told by an audience member on Graham Norton last week if you did not hear it. Is it true? I don’t know, but its a great story.
    Towards the end of his show, Mr. Norton invites members of the audience into a room, one at a time, to then sit in a huge red armchair and they endeavor to entertain everyone with a short true personal experience that is usually funny, odd, poignant, but above all it must meet with the approval of Mr Norton and his invited guests and the studio audience. Failure to do so at any stage during the story results in Mr. Norton pulling a large lever, gleefully, which then tips the red armchair backwards, thereby upending the occupier unexpectedly, resulting in an amusing picture of that person with just their calves and feet stuck up in the air. Undignified perhaps, but very funny, as the participating member is never aware of the moment of assault.

    After an unsuccessful attempt to tell a story by one lady, the armchair was occupied by a young man who hailed from Dublin. He said that he was sat at a table in a restaurant in Dublin a few years ago with his then girlfriend when two guys walked into the dining area and sat down across the way from them.

    On closer inspection the guy said to his girlfriend, “I’m sure that’s Bono from U2 sitting over there with that other guy”. His girlfriend looked and agreed that it was.
    The two of them discussed the idea of going over and politely asking for autographs, photo’s perhaps and just to say hello but were wary of Bono’s privacy in a public place.
    Soon after, Bono got up to go to the toilet and the man saw his chance. He went over to the table and said to the other guy, “Excuse me, I hate to interrupt your meal, but I couldn’t help but notice that Bono is sitting here and I was wondering if it may be possible to get an autograph, or a photograph?”

    The man at the table said, “Well, Bono is a private guy, but when he comes back, I will ask him for you”.
    Bono returned, the two men chatted and then called the man and his girlfriend over where Bono generously gave them autographs etc., and all was fine and the couple were absolutely delighted.
    The two men finished their meal and left the restaurant.
    The guy and his girlfriend, feeling very pleased with what had occurred, finished their meal soon after and then asked the waiter for the bill.
    The waiter said, “Your bill has already been paid sir”.
    “Really”, said the man, astonished. “Who paid the bill?”
    “Mr. Springsteen paid it sir!”

    He said he could not believe what he had done. He had spoken to the “other man” without clocking that it was Bruce. Springsteen and Bono must have had a chuckle about it, but what an amazing gesture and reward for the politeness the couple showed, their bravery too as not everyone would have even dared to ask and what a memory to have.

    It just touches a little on some thoughts a man on the radio talked about this week. If I remember correctly, he was thinking about fortunate he was to have the intelligence he had and how he was able to show kindness to many people. Then he realised that really, his intelligence was a gift he was given, he had little choice in the matter, but that the kindness he shows and that anyone shows, well you have to make an effort at doing that, it means you ‘doing’ something rather than just being something.

    And I guess in that short story about Bono and Bruce, highly intelligent men though they are, its their kindness which stands out. Their humility too.

  5. I’m the guy with the tattoos girlfiriend haha, it was an amazing gig and Marc getting to hug and talk to guy Garvey made it even more special. Such a great man!

      1. I’m ‘that guy’ and I’m very proud to have shared that intimate moment with 10,000 people because it felt as if I was sat in a living room with the band. They draw you in with their passion, their lyrics, their shyness towards their ‘fame’ and just Guy being Guy, he makes you feel like he’s your best friend!
        I still cannot believe I got a hug off him and still in disbelief he dedicated ‘Grace Under Pressure’ to me.
        My tattoo is the title from said song and is special because after all the angst and heart break I’ve been through, I still believe in love and I had it done for Abby and I.

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