Elbow Live: Garvey's Gone All Bono

After twenty years of solid gigging 'The Band of The People' have finally taken to the arenas, but have they disappeared up their own arses U2 style?
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Guy Garvey bounds onstage looking like the bastard child of Frank Sinatra and Zach Galifianakis, managing to look scruffy and smart in equal measure. The three-piece suit doesn't quite fit, the beard's threatening to engulf his face and that endomorphic frame is more darts player than it is rock star. But the crowd goes apeshit, nonetheless.

Me, I've got my suspicions about him tonight.

Looking at the stage set-up, I'm resigned to the fact that I'm about to witness something I've long since dread, but thought would never actually happen: Elbow disappearing up their own arse.

I knew this 'band of the people' shtick wouldn't last forever – not once they started shifting serious units, anyway. The cause of my misgivings is the fuck-off thrust stage, stretching out into the heart of Newcastle Arena's standing section. “Garvey's gone Bono,” I mutter.

The thrust stage, for me, in all its phallic folly, is the ultimate indication that the band you've been championing all these years, finally couldn't give a shit about you, the rest of their fans or any other mere mortal for that matter. The more elaborate the stage set-up a band has, the bigger bellends they've become – that’s my theory. And as U2 currently hold the world record for the most expensive tour rig ever, I reckon it's pretty astute. The whole thing just stinks of Spinal Tap, I suppose is my point. It’s more about being a rawk star than it is about playing music.

It's an accusation that's never previously been levied at Garvey and Co. They've been together for an incredible twenty years now, beginning life as a gaggle of frowzy sixth-formers in 1990. So it's hard to see how anything but an intense love of playing music would keep them together through a decade as an unsigned act, finally getting a deal then being dropped, doing more deals – three altogether – and then releasing album after album of ubiquitously acclaimed records, without ever garnering the commercial success they warrant. That changed with fourth album The Seldom Seen Kid, 2008's Mercury Prize victory and, of course, One Day Like This.

But back to this thrust stage malarky: What's the story, Garvey? Turns out, as opposed to a penis extension, it's the extended hand of friendship, used to pat each attendee on the back and welcome us to the band's intimate soiree. All 10,000 of us.

After a quick swig of his pint, The Birds is the evening's first tune, sounding far heavier than it does on record, which seems to take the crowd by surprise. After basking in the applause that's eventually sent his way, Garvey stretches his legs as compere.

“It means the world to us that that you've come out to see us play,” he says. To prove just how much it means he gives a personalised shout-out and standing ovation to Keith Greathead in Block 214, Row T, for being the person furthest away from the stage.

Keith's not the only one made to feel incredibly welcome; the cavernous arena is transformed into an intimate working men's club when our convivial host strides along his catwalk, interacting with anyone that catches his eye. The rest of the band walk out to join him, he raises the lid of the piano to reveal a drinks cabinet and cocktails are poured to toast their anniversary.

"I wish we could buy you all a drink... But that would defeat the object of you giving us your money. Which, believe me, we appreciate. You wanna see my wardrobe these days," he quips.

The Elboys huddle together for Weather To Fly: “The only song we've ever written about us five.”

It's interrupted for another comedic turn. “Are we having the time of our lives,” Garvey almost  inaudibly coos in falsetto. “It's like a dolphin talking to you,” he sallies. “I actually said: 'Are we having the time our lives?' It's just a bit of audience participation. Think of me as Les Dennis.”

“Les Dawson more like,” a pissed bloke in front of me shouts. “Les Dawson? You cheeky get,” is the rebuttal, before he regales us with an anecdote about Dawson, a throat lozenge and a musket volley. Stand-ups fail to get laughs this loud in this venue.  He plods back onto the main stage, joining the rest of the band to finish the song – a joyous tribute to themselves. From clown to magician – effortlessly.

The set is heavy with tunes from Build A Rocket Boys! and its predecessor: The night Will Always Win, The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane and Mirrorball induce goosebumps all round; blues stompers Grounds for Divorce, Neat Little Rows and With Love get fists pumping.

The set closes, inevitably but spectacularly, with One Day Like This. Mid-song, Garvey abandons the stage altogether to plough his way through the crowd, until he's eventually shaking hands with Keith – the fan supposedly furthest from the action. He's touched every member of the crowd in one way another tonight. Literally, in some cases.

Elbow play the day after headline act U2 on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury this year, and all the thrust stages in the world won't save Bono's boys from getting absolutely blown away.

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