REVIEW: Elbow presents a night at the ‘Oakland Love Spa’


Elbow performs at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Jan. 20, 2020. Martin Lacey/Staff.

OAKLAND — Elbow frontman Guy Garvey was admittedly in a peculiar mood at his band’s show at the Fox Theater on Monday.

“I’m really enjoying this,” the chatty Garvey said halfway through. “Full disclosure: I’ve been hungover all day and I’ve been dreading this. … I can feel the whiskey existing my skin.”

But something about the room; an attentive audience, the just-right temperature, perhaps, sucked him into action. Shortly after, he dubbed the show the “Oakland Love Spa.” “I like the ring to that,” he said.

By that point the show was already well under way to surpassing a typical Monday performance.

The Manchester, England band, which includes keyboardist and singer Craig Potter, guitarist Mark Potter, bassist Pete Turner and session drummer Alex Reeves, kicked off with the first single from last fall’s new album, Giants of All Sizes. Though roughly eight minutes long on the album, “Dexter & Sinister” was condensed by more than a minute live. Still, it came across as a sort of rock opera. Much like the rest of the set it combined elements of chamber music, guitar rock and Britpop, full of tempo-changing, aggressive percussion.

The band was backed by two violinists who sometimes also sang, and on this song, opener Jesca Hoop (who also sings on the song on the album).

Elbow, Guy Garvey

Elbow performs at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Jan. 20, 2020.

Garvey was chatty between nearly every song, first starting with a dedication to Oakland Technical High School’s class of 1981 students, who spent four years advocating for the state to make California one of the first in the country to declare Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a holiday.

“Fly Boy Blue / Lunette,” off 2014’s The Take Off and Landing of Everything, was a heavy dirge-like rocker that transformed into a melodic and urgent organ-tinged tune. Like the opener, it included two separate movements.

Much of Elbow’s set was split relatively evenly between the new album, the 2014 record, 2017’s Little Fictions, 2005’s Leaders of the Free World, 2011’s Build a Rocket, Boys! and 2009’s The Seldom Seen Kid. “Mirrorball,” a 2009 tune, was even moodier and meditative than it comes across on its album. New percussive cut “White Noise White Heat” had propulsive spoken-word delivery by Garvey.

The frontman had several running gags throughout. One included his referencing younger drummer Reeves’ boyish good looks. Another had him coming back to his love of locomotives.

“This is a song about trains—I fucking love trains,” he said before launching into the slowly building and cathartic “Station Approach.”

“This is another song about trains,” he said of “Kindling,” on which he had the audience create a choir-like vocal effect. “I’m daffy about trains.”

Garvey, Mark Potter and Turner harmonized on 2009 tune “My Sad Captains” before the audience took over on the refrains when Garvey held the microphone over the first few rows.

“Little Fictions,” the title track to 2017’s album, got an extended introduction.

“This song is about arguing,” he explained with the crowd gamely contradicting him. “Yeah it is! It is! I know it is!”

“The song’s about the folly of arguing,” he explained afterward. “People really argue with the ones they love. … People aren’t arguing anymore. They aren’t debating. They’re just spouting opinions on social media. … Fuck your president.”

Dissonant percussion eventually exploded into a cacophonous outburst by the whole band on the song. It was the most “arena rock” Elbow would get, recalling early Coldplay.

Fans would again take over on the acoustic guitar-ballad “Magnificent (She Says).” The room grew mostly quiet as Garvey told th story behind new track “Weightless.” The story started as a joke about how his son now rations his affection for his dad—when the dad wanted a cuddle the son, Jack, opined that he was only to get one, knowing that it was the only thing keeping Garvey alive. (Guy, if you’re reading this, I can relate. I can only presume that kids pick this up from some show like “Peppa Pig”). He then explained how his own dad possessed away shortly after his son’s birth and about the first encounter between the two. The story was about death being a part of life, though few if any clapped because it was extremely touchingly told.

Elbow, Guy Garvey

Elbow performs at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Jan. 20, 2020.

Fortunately for the flow of the show, Garvey soon handed his mic to a woman in the crowd who wanted to tell him a joke about masturbation. And just like that Elbow was off and running again. The band saved some of its most popular material for the end, including bluesy rocker “Grounds for Divorce” and symphonic closer “One Day Like This.”

Singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop, who was born in Santa Rosa and now lives in Los Angeles, opened the show with a six song set of minimalistic introspective numbers.

“I’m a North Bay girl myself, and proud of it,” she said before launching into the somber “City Bird,” about living in L.A. The sparse picking of her guitar allowed her mournful voice and the story—”You don’t sing like the birds from home sing”—shine the brightest.

Jesca Hoop

Jesca Hoop performs at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Jan. 20, 2020.

Before transitioning to “Free of the Feeling,” Hoop spoke about how the songs as influenced by her having a sense of dread that she could be in trouble at any moment, and that efforts to find reassurance from an authority figure went unanswered because there’s no one in charge and no one looking over people. Elbow’s violinists backed her on several songs, and on this song one of them tapped her collarbone next to a microphone for percussion.

For “Murder of Birds,” she welcomed Garvey to the stage and there two told a story about their first meeting, a decade ago. After he heard one of her songs on a compilation record of Silverlake artists, he tried to hunt her down. The two bantered about how their first conversation took place after several aborted efforts, while she was taking a bath.

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(2) Comments

  1. Andrew Austerfield

    Roman, this is one of the weirdest reviews I've ever read. What you've actually written is more like a witness statement of account. With a review I'm expecting you to tell me if you enjoyed the event. Did the band play well? Was Garvey engaging, witty, charming, funny, annoying?

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