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Elbow Live: Seeing Is Believing

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Similarly to the scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, in which our favorite truant trio visits the Art Institute of Chicago and surveys Seurat's pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte to the strains of "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want," Elbow's song "Dear Friends" accompanied me (headphones and all) on a rainy-day visit to The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. as I got up-close and personal with Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party.

That was back in March, and now, every time I hear Elbow's latest album, Build A Rocket Boys, I reflect on my jaunt through Adams Morgan that soggy spring week, when I trudged up and down Connecticut Avenue armed with nothing but an umbrella and an iPod filled with Elbow frontman Guy Garvey singing "The River," "Jesus Is a Rochdale Girl," and "The Night Will Always Win."

Don't worry, we're not gonna talk about how Elbow's music relates to art (although that might be interesting); I just used the museum ploy to establish a scenario for the kind of all-encompassing aural environment these Ivor Novello-winning Mancunians create. When you listen to Elbow, you're the only one in the room -- and the same holds true whether you're toting their latest digital download into a gallery (like I did), listening to "Lippy Kids" on your laptop, or watching the band onstage at Coachella in California or Glastonbury in their native UK. Mesmerizing intimacy meets ultimate hands-in-the-air festival band. That's Elbow.

This weekend, the quintet -- who've played together since 1990 -- flies over from the UK to play the Austin City Limits Music Festival on September 18 before setting out on an eight-city North American tour that runs through October 2.

Guitarist Mark Potter rang me recently from England, where he was playing in a park with his kid, to catch up about the band's impending trip stateside and fill me in on what's happened since I chatted up Garvey in a separate interview back in March. In addition to being nominated for a Mercury Music Prize for 2011 Album of the Year, launching its own brand of ale, and teaching a 100,000-strong crowd how to do a reverse wave, the summer has brought Elbow a taste of what it's like to support the album they "always wanted to make." (Read more about the adventurous musicality of Build A Rocket Boys here.)

Whereas Potter calls each of Elbow's recordings "chapters of where we're at at the time," its gigography is less easily compartmentalized. While playing to Euro crowds in the tens of thousands might be the norm for the band (in part thanks to the success of 2008's Seldom Seen Kid and the runaway hit "One Day Like This"), here in America, we've seen Elbow open for U2 and Coldplay, but are much more likely to catch the guys in theaters like Atlanta's 900-seater Center Stage, where the band ended its world tour in 2009.

A million Brit bands have found the transition from continental superstars to heartland hitmakers a tough one. And truth be told, aside from thoughtful stations such as L.A.'s KCRW, terrestrial American radio, littered as it is with inane forgettables, will probably have little to do with Elbow's success on U.S. turf, where the worthy Build A Rocket Boys has peaked as high as #3 on the Heatseekers chart, but has only reached #151 on the Billboard 200.

When Elbow first hit the UK scene at the dawn of the naughts with "Newborn," that falsetto-laced ballad set the band on course to garner comparisons to both Radiohead and Peter Gabriel. I can see that. I remember discovering the band on an early compilation CD in a British music magazine in the late 1990s, and have since enjoyed following the growth of Elbow's catalogue. But pigeonholing these guys as an alternative rock band doesn't do their discography or their live prowess justice. Definitely one of the best bands I've ever seen live.

A penchant for strings, choral backgrounds, and pristinely-recorded vocals, guitars and keyboards could be the formula for a preening group of artsy-fartsy alterna-prog-rockers. But with Elbow, it's just the opposite. These seem like ordinary blokes, not afraid to play the mensch or wear their hearts on their sleeves while creating an extra-ordinary sound. You simply have to see -- and hear it -- to believe it.

For Elbow tour info and tickets, click here.

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