Belle & Sebastian
Upon arrival in my seat in Upper Darby, PA’s old, pretty Tower Theater, two things are clear: 1) Belle & Sebastian are a much bigger band than their tiny, delightfully intimate albums would lead one to believe and 2) The members are, without exception, scruffy and cute from a distance. And let’s add on 3) They’re very popular here.
3 May 2002: Tower Theatre Philadelphia
Not that I had any idea. I mean, yes, they did seem to be popular among the College Radio Types at my University of Pittsburgh, and they did look kind of scruffy what small photos I’d seen on album sleeves, but it is disarming to finally get a good look at them, all twelve of them (the original seven plus Rasputina cellist Melora Creager sitting in for the MIA Isobel Campbell, plus a string quartet), to do so in a large, sold out venue with bright, spinning, colored lights glaring in my eyes, and to walk in on it all in progress, with my girlfriend and I hurrying in midway through song three, song two being “Sleep Around the Clock”, and the opener being what else? The theme to Rocky.
Immediately, my girlfriend, a reformed member of the aforementioned College Radio Types, melts into a state of euphoria I haven’t seen since the early days of our romance, if ever. This is her band, and we’d driven across the state from Pittsburgh to see them.
A confession: I am that rarest of entities in the Belle & Sebastian universe, the casual fan. I own and enjoy the obligatory copy of If You’re Feeling Sinister and also the Lazy Painter Jane boxed set, which in a less complicated world would be a single CD. My girlfriend bought me the This Is Just a Modern Rock Song EP two Christmases ago and I like that, too, even if I don’t find myself digging it out of the collection for a spin on anything resembling a regular basis.
The song we’re listening to, “There’s Too Much Love”, ends, the lights go into their pensive, “between song” mode and the crowd, some of whom are dancing in the aisles, roars in approval. A harsh “Stand up!” emanating from somewhere in the peanut gallery punctuates the awkward silence. Someone in the band mutters something silly with a semi-incomprehensible Scottish accent, and we’re off again with “I’m Waking Up to Us”.
What’s impressive is how immaculate and, yes, delightfully intimate the playing and singing are. With the string section, a piano and horns where appropriate, it sounds basically like what you get on the album, if a little looser. There isn’t much room for embellishment or rocking out, but every song is a great chance for the audience to sing along, and it happily and quite tunefully obliges.
Next the band throws me a bone with “Seeing Other People”, a song that harkens back to my own sometimes triple-cheating college days. In fact, Belle & Sebastian have probably supplanted the Smiths as the ultimate English Major band: literate but not flagrantly so (take that, Morrissey), understated and coolly detached (as opposed to Moz’s more ‘80s-ready indulgent pomp), and despite the fact that they must be in their thirties now, still big into thrift stores and horn rims (which, since Vauxhall & I, Mozzer has eschewed, preferring various states of undress).
The long, charmingly chatty pauses between songs not withstanding, it all rolls on. We get a taste of the forthcoming Storytelling soundtrack with the clap-able “Fiction” and the instrumental “Wandering Alone”. Not long after, the band breaks into Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”, of all things, and distributes “I’m a Philly survivor, Love B&S” pins and T-shirts for a long 20 minutes, possibly as a payback for a show the band canceled several years back as a result of illness on Campbell’s part. It’s unexpected and welcome, as it gives me a chance to self-medicate the bright-lights-induced headache I have with an eight ounce plastic cup of cool, Yuengeling Lager.
Things really heat up with the de-facto second set, with “Boy with the Arab Strap” and “Get Me Away from Here I’m Dying” bringing the to shabby-chic masses to their feat. Have two left feet? So does everyone here, everyone but my girlfriend who used to be captain of the cheerleaders. (She makes no apologies.) We all dance up a storm.
My girlfriend likes “String Bean Jean”; the highlight for me is the pretty, powerful Stevie (“Full of Good Intentions”) Jackson-sung “The Wrong Girl”; and the showstopper is undoubtedly the oddly rollicking “Legal Man”, during which Stuart Murdoch darts into the crowd like a some kind of underfed, self-aware Paul Stanley. The crowd chants for an encore, and out come Belle & Sebastian once again to offer up a solid “Me & the Major”, which rounds things out at a decent two hours. After that it’s the house lights and out into the warm evening.
The crowd gets high marks for politeness (no pushing) and style (cute guys and cuter, well-dressed women) and the Band gets a well-earned eight of a possible ten (8/10) for a well executed, fun show, that succeeded in doing the impossible: satisfying the English Majors for evening. Their various angsts and malaises will return with a cruel vengeance in the morning sun, but for the rest of the night, they are free.