Live Music + Gig Reviews

Elbow and the Hallé @ Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

8 July 2009

Historically, Manchester has always been the kind of city that cherishes its musical institutions. Tonight’s sold out performance (the first of two shows) is yet another illustration of Manchester’s swelling pride in its musical heroes.

In a night set to be instantly etched in Mancunian folklore, the city’s newest and oldest institutions – Mercury Award winners Elbow and the world-famous Hallé Orchestra along with the magnificent Hallé Youth Choir – come together, as Manchester International Festival triumphantly marches into its second week.

Elbow’s front man Guy Garvey stands bashfully and slightly to one side of the stage. He refuses to be the central focus and is clearly in awe of the esteemed company. The Hallé Orchestra – led by local composer and arranger for the night, Joe Dudell – dominates the stage. A mutual respect pours from the Hallé’s obvious affection for Elbow’s consistently wonderful back catalogue. Tonight’s other key player, the Bridgewater Hall, is dimly lit and packed to the rafters. Now one of the country’s most respected theatres, the purpose-built auditorium is the ideal venue for an occasion such as this.

Unlike Elbow’s recent performance for the BBC, which was a straight recreation of the award-winning album, The Seldom Seen Kid, tonight’s set leans heavily on ballads from all of Elbow’s four studio albums. Garvey’s natural grasp of pathos, and his innate ability to relate the simplicity of romance and the depth of love is at centre stage and played out in full. The Seldom Seen Kid’s most moving junctures – Mirrorball, Some Riot and Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver – come alive and stand like giants in this grand theatre, while a selection of surprises please the band’s long term supporters.

Intimate classics like Powder Blue, The Stops and Switching Off are transformed into blanketing mini-symphonies. Starlings is given its own small overture, allowing the majestic Hallé Orchestra to periodically take the reigns. Due to the emphasis on the ballad, the performance rarely alters its melancholic pace, but when it does – with the clobbering riffs of Grounds For Divorce – it feels like the crowd has been caught slightly unawares. Even Garvey’s noble attempts to involve the audience aren’t enough to lull it out of a stunned, but happy, stupor.

Following a short interval, this fortunate audience is treated to another surprise. Garvey looks towards the choir, the light on the main orchestra dims and the young vocalists do the rest. Grace Under Pressure has never sounded so beautiful. Without any musical accompaniment, its gentle lullaby is this evening’s soothing respite. Occasionally, the night threatens to overwhelm. The seamless duet of Great Expectations and Friend Of Ours brings cheers of adoration and relief, such is its intensity.

Garvey sings flawlessly throughout; but somehow on this occasion, his angelic croon plays second fiddle to this glorious night, as Elbow’s affecting ballads stand like mirrors in front of its immersed audience. Garvey has a unique way a reflecting anyone else’s life with his own. His humility and wide-eyed romanticism chimes with every human heart here, as poignant minor chord refrains and soaring melodies echo emotions this crowd is feeling now or has felt before.

Like a band that hasn’t put a foot wrong for going on 10 years, Elbow planned well for this event. The Bridgewater Hall’s opulent surroundings, usually reserved for higher-brow entertainment, cradle the band’s emotive songs and the crowd’s attentive silence without a semblance of awkwardness. Breaking this silent appreciation with applause just feels like impolite interruption. Such is the preciousness of the atmosphere, the audience will wait for a violinist’s final bowed note to end in silence before soft ripples of applause swell into full-scale raptures. The audience savours each and every moment in an auditorium that accentuates each and every note.

With a performance that will etch in the memories of the lucky few in attendance, this still-humble Bury five-piece have written yet another chapter in Mancunian music history. How do Elbow go about toppling this night? With memories such as these, it is unlikely the band will care. One thing’s for sure, though – this town will cherish them until the very end.

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Elbow and the Hallé @ Bridgewater Hall, Manchester