by Kyle Kochan
It’s been years since my last consumption of live music in Philadelphia. Not since Interpol came through town pre Turn on the Bright Lights release at the now defunct Club Transit on Spring Garden. Oh how I forgot the flagrant bellicose nature of the denizens that seem to come out of the woodwork only at night here. I also forgot how this city loves to plaster the image of Ben Franklin anyplace they damn well can and please. Needless to say it’s roughly thirteen unlucky years later, I’m no wiser and am only a hop, skip, and a jump away over on North 7th street at The Electric Factory. Ben Franklin carries a boom box now and it turns out only two left turns made a right on Tuesday night.
Different venue and refined tastes bring me out to witness something elegantly different since my last foray into the Philly night life. Elbow. The darlings from Manchester, England crossed the pond mid European tour of filling out arenas sized for legions of fans well into the tens of thousands to play a stint of cozy clubs in the US. Twenty plus year veterans of the British music scene, Glastonbury Festival favorites, award after award won, performed with The London Philharmonic, six albums into said career and here they are in all of their slightly snarky British glory.
John Grant is the opening act and this fella sure does have one heck of an interesting/heart breaking, yet triumphant story to sing about himself. Such a pensive face creased with worry, doubt and confidence all at once. Somehow.
Let me start at the beginning then…Which sadly was more like an ending. John Grant has a nice back! In lieu of giving false testimony here I must say that when a Philadelphia venue says show at 8 PM, they apparently mean doors open at 7 and the show actually starts at 8. In CT we do things slightly different and show up fashionably late to skip the pre-show “house music” and to avoid the odd ambling of show goers walking in circles jockeying for position. Well, in showing up seriously and unfashionably late, the most I can say is that Mr. Grant does in fact A) have splendid taste in clothing and B) has a nice back and is a callipygian (to use a lyric off of his newer record and a word that I just learned tonight). Yeah, yeah, yeah, I erroneously missed most of this greatly received show and bow my head in shame. I only saw him walk off stage.
However, I digress- John Grant somewhat resembles a blend between a less scary, younger Ray Liotta and a beard wielding Ewan McGregor reprising his role as a Jedi mixed with minstrel. Watching him walk off stage I feel sad and ashamed I missed him because the crowd really seems to have taken to his performance, and I know deep down I missed something special. Unintentional miscalculation on my part and a 4.5 hour drive from Connecticut to Philadelphia were my shameful fatal flaws this evening.
I won’t use my tardiness and unfamiliarity with his work, or missing 92% of his set as a reason for dereliction of duty as a writer, though. I was lucky enough during intermission to track down “the number one John Grant fan” hovering, no- lumbering over the merch table cherishing his recently purchased and autographed vinyl of Mr. Grants’ second album, Pale Green Ghosts. I’ll call this friendly bearded giant Clint. Let it be known that he was gently caressing his gatefold style record and babying it like it was his most precious possession of all.
The interaction went something like this:
Clint- “Are you here for John Grant? You’re here for John Grant, right?”
Me- “I’m here for both bands, but sadly missed Mr. Grant. How’d it go down?”
Clint- (run on sentence) “It was great but the sound sucked and it kept cutting out and it got all crackly which was sad because it happened during my favorite song “Glacier” I love “Glacier” so much that it makes me cry.”
Me- “So did you cry then?”
Clint- “I stood front row and sang all of the songs and he saw me man. John saw me sing all the words and he recognized that! People around me got upset because I was singing but I don’t care at all.”
The exchange was short between “Clint” and I. We will also never know if he did cry, but it made me realize one indelible fact: John Grant, who was born in the USA, but currently living abroad in Iceland and accruing a host of interesting life facts, has such a serious fan base, that after only two solo albums, they are willing to spread the Gospel of Grant and piss off all the non John Grant fans in the audience by singing proud the words of their favorite artist. Mr. Grant also managed to amp up the masses and drum up enough excitement to get The Electric Factory thundering in anticipation for the headliner. “Clint” walked off suggesting the current band playing (Elbow had started their set by now to a seriously ravenous sounding audience) is “very bland.”
I think the audience disagreed vastly with ol’ Clint.
So John Grant kicked the beehive. That benevolent bearded beauty lit the fuze and ran, or some such proverbial bullshit. The crowd is now ravenous. Hungry for what he preheated the oven for. For a mid week show the audience is ready to be served. True to form as in any Tuesday night show the venue is only filled to maybe 3/4 capacity, but they look famished. Elbow is here, walking on stage and tangible. They look more like a group of slightly rag tag friends walking into a sitting room for an evening beer rather than a band about to play a gig. They look so relaxed. Why wouldn’t they?
There is something transfixing about seeing a band you’ve wanted to see for a decade and a half but never got to- 15 year cold spell. I froze. There was some kind of instrumental introduction the band opened with that I was unfamiliar with. Still though, it didn’t seem like they were playing anything as I stood there standing agog in astonishment at the wonderment of musical felicity that was starting to unfold in front of us. Then the sense of hearing took over and “Charge”, the 2nd song off the brand spanking new Elbow album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, was being force fed down our throats and we, the audience, as a collective seemed all too willing to be spoon fed such a beast of a track. Suddenly everything seemed real and the crowd was very compressed. People, strangers, and lovers all crammed together to enjoy this. Elbow seems to be for lovers. Lots of couples stand up spooning. All eyes front and center on an energy slowly, yet methodically, erupting from the stage we were all just a moment ago staring blankly at.
By the second song, “The Bones of You”, I start to notice that this might be the first time I’ve been to a show where the lead singer of a band somehow manages to get the audience to actually participate with his shenanigans. The masses not only seem to enjoy the sounds emanating from the band they paid to see, but weren’t actually too self important or pretentious to sway their hands in the air like Guy Garvey demand that they do. Guy, by the way, is the front man of this great band called Elbow that you should be seeing right now. More songs were performed to perfection for us: “New York Morning” which is most likely about Guy’s time spent briefly living in Manhattan and “Real Life Angel,” a body shuddering beauty of a song too priceless for words that only Elbow could write and deliver in song form. This is when the realization is made that this is a band that performs so tightly to perfection based on their fearless leader’s direction. Yes, all front men “lead” a band, but Mr. Garvey somehow seems to rally his four cohorts around him in perfect unison, and together they offer him to the audience; into our ears, hearts and minds unlike any other band I’ve ever seen.
This band is entirely in control. Elbow blast through three more songs with stunning perfection when slight tragedy strikes: Craig Potter’s keyboard seems to cut out. Several stage hands scramble in an attempt to revive it during a lull in the show. One even seemed to try chest compressions. In true good showmanship Guy decided a game with the audience would be a better way to pass the time then to have us all stare at a fried electric piano. The man proceeds to ask the audience which band member we’d like to know one interesting, yet little known fact about, and uses his hand as a dowsing rod and measures our cheers, jeers and cat calls as a barometer of interest. His pointer finger lands on bassist Pete Turner, and proceeds to tell us an embarrassing story of Pete putting his foot in his mouth for all to see on Twitter when he called Sting a twat for something he may or may not have done a long while back. We all get the feeling Pete doesn’t use Twitter anymore, and also share in some of his embarrassment.
“Okie dokie dokie,” says Guy. “Was that one too many dokies,” he asks? I don’t know, is there a dokie/dokey rule? Can’t even spell it.
Piano problems solved and everything back to normal the band strikes back up playing favorite after favorite. At times Elbow hits melancholic and emotional lows with beauty splattered melodies as on the acoustic version of “Great Expectations”, then slapping us all back to reality with great emotional apexes with the fist pumping frenzy of “Grounds for Divorce”. There is an energy and an apparent shared pain the way all of these songs are performed and processed by my brain. The audience seems to feel the same and most are singing/screaming the words back when Guy aims his trusty microphone to the masses during “Grounds for Divorce”.
Then, far worse than the tragedy of a broken keyboard a real travesty is announced: “Just one more song,” Guy bellows into his mic. He is instantly met with a chorus of “boos and fuck yous” from a very upset, by this latest bit of news, mob. He concedes by claiming: “We’ll just never play here again,” like a teasing tantrum child not getting his way. This was in jest of course; our “boos, and his not coming back.” We hope . The show closes with “My Sad Captains”, a lovely ballad type song about drinking with friends being a “perfect waste of time”. The rest of the band calls back to Guy on this song between verses – “oh my soul”. Yeah, all of our souls hurt because the night is coming to a close.
Five great musicians take their bows and gracefully walk off stage, bassist Pete is last and gives us a big grin and thumbs up. The audience stomps and cheers and whistles and hollers…and, and…duh. Here they come again, single file. Some carrying beers and others glasses of wine or water – Elbow for an encore. They even call back their two violinists for this one. Real strings, because that’s just the kind of band they are. Guy jokes they’re great for learning all their violin parts in a week but that they’re not even getting paid. Poor them. Lucky us.
“Lippy Kids” is the first encore number and it’s charming because it has whistling throughout and we all as a collective audience get to do this part.
“Again with the audience participation!”
The song is drawn out longer than normal with a game of cat and mouse, call and response whistles between Guy and 1,000 whistling fans. It ends on us holding a long note being blown followed by immediate claps and “more, more” being chanted. We all get the feeling when “One Day Like This” begins being performed that this truly is the end, because true fans know there isn’t a more epic closer. Truly.
“One day like this a year would see me right?” One night like this a lifetime is more like it. Sad to see and hear it end. To feel all the highs and lows with a group so in tune with its fan base. We feel happy and drained and grateful for it. I think.
In closing, I must admit, being in slight fear of my life at this point. The staff of the Electric Factory meant business and more like prison guards manning pistols and batons, they perform a mad sweep to clear the hall of the stragglers scrambling to snatch up set lists or the stray stagnant fan standing idle ruminating for a moment of what they just witnessed. We’re briskly swept towards the entrance where my cohort Todd and I manage to cling to the concession stand where we find stale muffins and pretzels sitting out. I cooly ask the business like, slight pixie of a snack shack attendant how much for a stale pretzel. “Make an offer,” she says. I like a good haggle. 50¢ I offer. She proceeded to throw them away. Offer declined.
We’re once again shown the way to the door. The Electric Factory wants us gone. So we oblige and just walk out into the night.
Back to wherever it was we just came from.