Occasionally, a band and a venue will fit together so perfectly you begin to wonder if they were formed and built with each other in mind.
The Beatles had the Cavern, the Ramones had CBGB’s, Queen had Wembley, Oasis had Maine Road. And now, it seems the unique surroundings of the Manchester Cathedral may just prove to be the closest thing Elbow will ever get to a bankable home fixture.
The airy, spatial ambiance afforded by the cathedral’s vast ceilings, together with the ethereal stained-glass and imposing stone pillars, make for an eerie, smokey atmosphere, one crying out to be filled by the kind of hymnal, joyously choral brand of music which Elbow have so excelled at in recent years.
Indeed, 2008 commercial breakthrough ‘The Seldom Seen Kid‘, and this year’s Mercury-nominated follow up ‘Build a Rocket Boys!‘, arguably the two clearest exponents of such multi-layered rock, will dominate a set which, despite the best efforts of Elbow’s always genial frontman Guy Garvey, will oddly struggle to hold attention for significant portions of the hour and a half we spend in their company.
The opening one-two of ‘Birds‘ and ‘Mirrorball‘ set the tone, with the former’s familiar blueprint of slow, intricate build from a walk to a sprint launching the night in perfect fashion. Yet it takes 2008 single ‘Grounds For Divorce‘ to finally kick the gig into gear, with the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club groove of Pete Turner, and the incessant, booming bass drum of Richard Jupp positively shaking the cathedral’s centuries-old walls to their core, while the ‘whooa whooa whooa’ refrain, both honed and perfected on the muddy fields of British festivals, invites the audience in for the first time.
Accompanied by the Manchester Halle Youth Choir, the sheer emotional majesty of ‘Lippy Kids‘ is something to behold. A longing ode to lost youth and innocence, it is powerful yet subtle in its delivery, with the choir struggling, but just about succeeding, to be heard over the frontman’s impassioned pleas for a new generation to “build a rocket boys” and to heed the advice of a world-weary veteran whose blissful, care-free childhood has been long since left behind.
To say Garvey is in chatty mood tonight would be to dabble in extreme understatement. Much chortling emanates from the Radio 2 crowd as he addresses the various TV, radio and Exchange Square audiences while running us through a brief history of the building we currently inhabit. It’s all very amiable, but at times flirts with breaking up the flow of the concert; the first three tracks are completed in around half an hour, guitarist Mark Potter begins to check his nails for dirt and absentmindedly fiddles with his tuners, patiently waiting for the signal that ends the banter and restarts the show.
When proceedings do restart, ‘Open Arms‘ is transformed from the sugary-sweet schmaltz it is on record to glorious, chest-beating anthem. Garvey’s vocals, once a nervous, Lancastrian croak, are these days strong, commanding and flawless, stripping away any overblown sentiment and giving the track an extra depth live, sung with a warmth and intimacy that feels like a heartful offer of refuge is being afforded to every single individual in attendance.
The rousing anthemic qualities of ‘Grounds For Divorce’, ‘Open Arms’ and of course, ‘One Day Like This‘, which closes the main bulk of the show, only serve to highlight the strange lulls which at times dog the performance. Tracks such as ‘The Night Will Always Win‘, ‘Some Riot‘ and ‘Dear Friends‘ are met with personal chatter and text checking amongst sections of the crowd, of which some appear to hold a deep interest in ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’, but almost geniune apathy for much else.
Upon their return for a final encore, ‘Starlings‘ once again has Garvey opening his heart to a crowd of strangers as he begs a lover to “back a horse that’s good for glue and nothing else”, while penultimate track ‘Station Approach‘, a rare but very much welcome delve in 2005’s ‘Leaders Of The Free World‘, breaks down to a captivating sigh, which for once has the entire crowd transfixed, before a secondary eruption sees the band to a man offering up everything they have left into its dramatic, foot-stomping conclusion.
In ‘Station Approach’s wake, set closer ‘Scattered Black and Whites‘ brings the show to a calm, whispering end, almost bowing in reverence to the ashy hum of the cathedral, and sending people out into the cold, autumn Mancunian air in a hush of gentle snare drum and light acoustic picking. Unfortunately, more small talk and premature departures once again puts a pin through the night’s milieu, and goes a long way to preventing the gig from being the magical experience it was so close to being.
For Elbow, a band who poured every ounce of themselves into the Manchester Cathedral, home genuinely is where the heart is. And for the crowd, it’s probably where their idle conversations would’ve been best saved for.