(for catsandbooks, disneytime and jan h: you know who you are)

LSD. The other night at Wolves, Guy Garvey told his delighted audience he was full of the stuff. He immediately clarified his comment: ‘I mean, Lancashire Self Doubt. ‘ Self doubt? How so? This is a frontman who has more self-possession and lyrical balance than almost any other songwriter I could name. He aims true and he hits; when he writes, when he plays, when he sings. From the moment he stepped out to welcome Jessca Hoop onto the stage to the moment he took his last bow we knew we were in safe hands. For a start, there was the way he treated Hoop. Jesca Hoop is a gifted writer herself and her voice has an eccentric but unerring heavenwards trajectory (in fact, it can swoop and dive just about anywhere). But her speaking voice is apologetic and too quiet, and so the audience, even the front few rows, could hardly hear what she was saying about her songs. Garvey, perhaps realising this was a problem, did his best to make sure she was listened to. He didn’t hector us into it, though, he simply gave her a recommendation: ‘one of the best singer songwriters around.’ And that was enough, especially for those of us lucky enough to be at the front. Where’s the LSD in that?

Safer still was the beginning of Elbow’s set. Various members of the band stood like a row of northern angels heralding in the gig as they stuck up the trumpet blasts that begin ‘Starlings.’ With each blast, spotlights lit the trumpeters for a second. Such a trick could look too choreographed with some bands, but not here. It was simply right, a beckoning of the audience, a fanfare for us. I’ve said before that Garvey plays us, his people, even better than he plays anything else, and this move felt like his and the band’s ‘tankpark salute’, a bolt of sheer joy. A jumpstart.

Twisting tunes from Leaders of the Free World and Seldom Seen Kid fluidly together, Elbow made every song feel part of the last, and yet every song had its own particular explosive excellence. ‘Grounds for Divorce’ became frighteningly sexy (what a loss of control I felt when they played it; did it show on my face?); ‘Station Approach’ reached further than ever into its longing when it arrived in the encore. But the real joy was hearing songs that I had previously thought slightly weak utterly transfigured. ‘Weather to Fly’ is a perfect example. On CD it seemed a sweet song– but perhaps too sweet. What they did with it live, however, was to begin by getting all the band to go to ‘Craig’s room’ (i.e. the space around the keyboards). Someone came on with a tray of shots. Each member of the band chinned one, after which they sang, flawlessly and a cappella, the first verse and chorus, before emerging from ‘Craig’s room’ to sing to and with the audience. Suddenly we were in a teenager’s house party again, all of us, and the melody was kicking like a horse.

When I listened to Garvey at Wolves, as was the case with other gigs, I attempted my usual dissolve into the voice of the lead singer. So, what did the Doubter deliver? In profile, Garvey looks like a 30s Hollywood hoodlum crossed with a falcon; he seems part Tough, part Windhover. But face on, he has a different kind of beauty: there’s also a childlike delight that ignites at the rightness of a note–his note or someone else’s. Somewhere along his sternum he feels it when a song moves into the right place for himself and the audience; his body seems at times to curve protectively round certain phrases. And, as a friend of mine recently observed, his arms are especially attractive. Some artists sing with their crotches (Elvis, Nick Cave); some with their chest and throat (Liam Gallagher, David Gedge); some with their lips (Richard Hawley), and some, like Thom Yorke, sing as though the melody is rippling around the inside of their skulls, like single malt around a tumbler. Garvey, however, sings with his arms and, by extension, his sense of touch. His arms are part of his voice, and, live, his voice has tentacles–it reaches everywhere.

This ability to touch obviously gives his voice a certain type of sensuality (think of the way he seems to run his fingers over the line ‘Sweet Jesus, I’m on fire’), but it also can simply translate as an affectionate embrace. In fact, there was something very levelling about the way he and the band went about things on Wednesday. His ‘touch’ is also political. Clues to the political groundedness of his approach came in the way he treated Hoop, but also in his insistence on thanking the lighting director for her work and getting us to thank her too; in getting us to wish the lighting director’s mum a happy 60th; in showering us with a canister of glittery silver paper; and most of all in a bit of ‘Kung Fu Fighting.’

That bit of Lancashire Kung Fu crowned the evening. Garvey, announcing the last song on the main part of the set, told us that we would need to sing Elbow back on stage if we wanted an encore. And, in his usual levelling way, he asked us for suggestions. I was just about to shout out ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You’ when someone beat me to it and bellowed ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ (we’d already had about 3 ideas, including ‘Tainted Love’). Garvey consulted the band and informed us that ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ it was, in the true ‘spirit of socialism.’ ‘Any socialists in the audience?’ he had asked at one point. Regrettably, only three people said ‘yes.’ Still, this decision felt properly egalitarian: some kind of equality of exchange would take place when we sang the band back into existence. After a bit of rehearsal in which Garvey reminded us of the tune–and realised that part of it was slightly racist– Elbow trooped off to ease their bladders and refill their glasses (how many different drinks could Garvey neck in the one evening?). Meanwhile, we got busy. At first, it was all dreadfully shambolic: one side of the crowd tried to start with ‘Everybody was Kung Fu fighting’ about 6 seconds after the other, making us sound less like a wall and more like a brawl of sound. But then, as the desire to see those northern angels once again suddenly bolted through us, we got it together. As one, we dropped in to that ‘Whooowhuooohh’ bit in the middle, chanting it in a glorious loop. And, after a couple of minutes, when this very silly song had transformed itself into something unexpectedly lovely, the band came out to us, grinning, drinks in hand.

Lancashire Self Doubt ? Well, if Garvey feels it, he doesn’t show it. And what I feel, after this gig, is a desire for another kind of LSD: Lancashire Self Determination. What’s so wonderful about Elbow, apart from their skill, is a kind of local energy. Just as Irn Bru was ‘made in Scotland-from girders,’ Elbow are forged in Lancashire, and in such a way as to make London and the self-satisfied south seem redundant. So, never mind all that crap about the North being dead (financially and culturally) (1); those in the know will want to head up Bury way, to the People’s Republic of Elbow. You might not need a passport to cross the border (this isn’t Pimlico) (2) but I suggest that before you travel, you look up the words to ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ and practice a few scales. ‘Saint Peter in satin’ will ask you to sing before he admits you. But once inside, you’ll find you’ve arrived at the centre of the musical universe.

1) http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/aug/14/britishidentity.conservatives 


See Garvey do his thing with the metal bar. Hot damn!

‘And if you’re northern, that makes it even worse.’ (Morrissey)

for George Deane

In ‘Let’s Ballad: Richard Hawley, Voicemanguitar’ I talked about Hawley being ‘northern.’ On the Hawley forum later, there was some dispute about whether Sheffield (Hawley’s home town) is really ‘north’ at all. But to me, Sheffield is north. Sheffield has a good deal of affinity with the northern town in which I was born, Bolton. In both cases, being northern is about neglected beauty, postindustrial decay, political radicalism, battered dignity. I’ve lived in the Cotswolds for five years now, and love its landscape (it’s not the chocolate box it at first appears to be). But I crave, will always crave, the Victorian red brick, the blackened sandstone of the north. It hurts me to go there: Bolton looks more impoverished with each visit, eviscerated as it is by the blight of supermarkets and what my Dad calls the ‘sheds,’ the vast hangars full of consumer tat to be found on the Bolton Wanderers carpark that is the ‘Middlebrook’ out-of-town shopping centre. My north fights against this north. My stone and brick north is also a dream place, a place of whinberry-filled moorland. Whinberries could stand as emblems of the north: tiny berries that cling to the earth, that bruise your teeth and tongue with their purple; sour-sweet bubbles containing larksong, reedy streams, peatbeds. Whinberry–a taste I haven’t had for so long but which stays on my palate. Those berries: so many unhealed, stubborn bruises the hill wears like a blazon.