Belle and Sebastian’s gig in Bristol last night came at a busy time for the band, in the middle of a world tour and sandwiched between their own curated ATP Festival at Minehead last weekend and a streamed ‘holiday spectacular’ gig in their native Glasgow next week.
There’s a lot on their mind but last night the focus was entirely on providing a two hour showcase of the best of “the Belle and Sebastian songbook,” as frontman Stuart Murdoch refers to it.
I’d last seen Belle and Sebastian seven years ago during the Dear Catastrophe Waitress tour and it was the tracks from that album that really stood out.
‘Piazza New York Catcher’ was the one that gets a fine cheer from those that found the band through the Juno soundtrack and live ‘Step Into My Office Baby’ gets a new lease of life. Free from Trevor Horn’s slightly soulless production it is spectacular live. Even ‘Lord Anthony’, a track about transvestism that I have in the past too readily skipped was transformed live into a piece of performance art. Murdoch invited a women in the crowd onto stage to apply mascara at the required moment in the song. As she kept trying to apply it too soon Murdoch coyly ducked and weaved around stage, relenting in the end.
The Belle and Sebastian charm is that they write stories within songs, looking at life in a skewed way, about the strays of the world, a woman on the bus, the bullied, the scared and the love sick. It seemed more than appropriate that they had invited comedian Daniel Kitson to read his short story about unrequited love backed by the Billy Bragg-esque talents of singer songwriter Gavin Osborn as support act.
But remember these are just characters and the band themselves are far sillier. Banter between themselves, in particular Murdoch and guitarist Steve Jackson, as well as the crowd is now a vital part of their show. Jackson performed a fine impersonation of Elvis Costello covering ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’ and there was genuine joy from the band when towards the end a member of the audience shouted out “please don’t go.”
After such an exchange Murdoch said, “right, back into character” and another melancholy story began.
Among other highlights in a long , warm and friendly set were classics like ‘Stars of Track and Field’ and ‘Boy with the Arab Strap’ as well as a sprinkling of new tracks from latest album Write About Love. This is the difference between Belle and Sebastian and far too many other bands that have been together for 15 plus years – they can do a greatest hits set but have some good new stuff to include in that as well.
An encore including ‘Me and the Major’ and ‘Judy and the Dream of Horses’ backed by a group of dancing girls selected from the crowd ended proceedings during a gig where Murdoch was happy to take requests from the “youngsters at the front and people my age at the back,” although calls for ‘Fox in the Snow’, were politely refused. “We’ve got to head back to Glasgow tonight,” said Murdoch mindful of the snow storms forecast for the night, “and I’m too superstitious.”
by Joe Lepper