For a music journalist the prospect of reviewing Elbow is a bittersweet challenge. On one hand there’s the excitement and elation at hearing one of the UK’s best acts, but on the other is the challenge of committing their brilliance to paper – little has yet to be written about Elbow’s sheer magnificence and it seems that a whole new vocabulary is required to say anything new or original about them. But, after only a few bars of the night’s set opener even the most jaded hack forgot their impending deadlines and simply went with the flow. Originality can go hang – Elbow are simply brilliant and that’s all there is to say.
Mencap’s Little Noise Sessions is now in its sixth year and Elbow has always been in their sights for a headline slot. Those six years have seen the band move from a much-beloved indie cult to stadium-fillers thanks to the twin successes of The Seldom Seen Kid and Build A Rocket Boys. Finally a gap in their schedule allowed them to perform this year on what was to be their last tour date of 2011. It’s hardly surprising that the night’s atmosphere was permeated with an air of celebration and a performance that made the most of the band returning to a more intimate venue.
The packed out crowd at St John’s would barely make up 10% of the usual Elbow gig capacity but the awe and humility that Guy Garvey showed towards Glastonbury’s masses was replayed for the night’s comparatively tiny throng. It was a textbook Garvey performance, making everyone feel welcome and special without any of the arrogant swagger you’d expect from a lead singer of such a successful outfit. The church setting worked wonders with Garvey’s voice echoing into the rafters like a boozy, renegade choirboy.
Despite the lack of any pre-Mercury Prize anthems, the set-list was near perfect. Epic opener The Birds really saw the band let rip and an attempt to spark off a Christmas Carol segued nicely into the thunderous Grounds For Divorce. The autobiographical Weather To Fly saw the band in reflective mood as they toasted their twentieth anniversary and, in case there was any room for doubt, The Night Will Always Win and The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver were also there to cement Garvey’s reputation for powerful and heart-breaking vocals.
Elsewhere, Open Arms still brought a tear to the eye despite being heard for the umpteenth time, helped along by the crowd joining in far louder than the usual St John’s congregation. The audience participation encouraged by the band meant that by the time One Day Like This closed the set we felt like we had all become honorary members of the band for the night.
This was one of those rarely to be repeated gigs – a band at the height of their powers playing to an intimate and devoted crowd. And all for a good cause too. Here’s to another 20 years.