When Stuart Murdoch came on stage wearing a bowler hat and sipping a cup of tea we knew we were in for a different kind of rock experience. Indeed, given the beatific smiles soon decorating the faces of the crowd, and the warmth and good humour generated by Murdoch and co, we could have almost been at a Christian Youth rally. There was an intimacy too, with band members chatting amongst themselves and the audience – telling jokes, stories, borrowing cigarettes. Belle and Sebastian are the sort of band you wouldn’t be afraid to invite to your home.
The band opened with a lovely rendition of long-time favourite ‘Stars of Track and Field’ from their second album ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’, before launching into a string of songs from their latest album ‘The Life Pursuit’. While songs from ‘Pursuit’ provided the bulk of the set list, one of the pleasant surprises of the evening was the appearance of so many older songs – ‘We Rule The School’, ‘Dog On Wheels’ and ‘She’s Losin’ It’ among them.
One of the highlights was a lively version of ‘Electronic Renaissance’, which had Murdoch and lead guitarist, Stevie Jackson, pogoing about the stage like puppets. Another older tune, ‘Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie’, provided the band with a rare opportunity to ‘rock out’ (or as close to ‘rocking out’ as Belle and Sebastian are likely to get).
Of the new songs ‘Funny Little Frog’, ‘We Are The Sleepyheads’ and, especially, ‘Dress Up In You’ stood out, while audience favourites ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ and ‘I’m A Cuckoo’ also sparkled.
As principal songwriter and band founder, Stuart Murdoch certainly comes across as the ‘man in charge’. But one gets the impression that Stevie Jackson’s contribution to the group is particularly important. Apart from being a skilled guitarist, he also takes on lead singer duties for ‘Song For Sunshine’ and ‘Jonathan David’, while his unassuming Buddy Holly-meets-George McFly persona (and robotic dance technique) provides an entertaining focal point.
With eight people on stage, and most called upon to play several instruments over the course of the evening, there was always something happening. In fact, given the number of people and instruments squeezed into the space, it is perhaps surprising that everything ran as smoothly as it did. The evening’s few hiccups gave the band an opportunity to joke around. When keyboard player, Sarah, left the stage for a toilet break, Jackson entertained the audience with an impromptu version of a song called (appropriately) ‘Adelaide’.
After a rapturous response from the crowd, Belle and Sebastian returned for a three-song encore, which included an improvised (and dubious) version of Bryan Ferry’s ‘Let’s Stick Together’, as well as latest single ‘The Blues Are Still Blue’ and a soaring ‘Sleep The Clock Around’.
It’s not often that I leave a concert with a grin on my face. I wasn’t the only one. As the audience streamed out of Thebarton Theatre into the cold night I noticed everyone sporting the same blissed-out expression. It takes a special kind of magic to send people home in such a state, and Belle and Sebastian seem to have such magic in bucket loads.
I’m guessing it might have something to do with the tea.