Belle & Sebastian
“What’s up with this crazy town?” Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch asked a couple songs into their set as he recounted the band’s sightseeing adventures around the Motor City earlier that day. He was wondering about the eerie quiet of Detroit’s ghost town downtown, but his words echoed my sentiments exactly. I have a bit of a hate-hate relationship with this place, the closest major city to my current home, and the time leading up to the first-ever Detroit-area show by these Scottish titans of indie pop had only served to reinforce my attitude. For months, all I had heard from the local kids about Belle & Sebastian playing here was bitching: bitching about an indie band charging $25 for a concert ticket, bitching about the venue, bitching about the opening band (the glorious Velvet Underground-inspired Slumber Party), and just bitching in general about B&S having “lost it.” With all the bitching I heard it’s a wonder anyone came to the show at all. (And, in fact, the Detroit show was practically the only non-sellout on this short tour.)
10 May 2002: State Theater Detroit, Michigan
But, thankfully, nothing could ruin this night, for me or any of the other music lovers in the audience. Belle & Sebastian were on, absolutely 100 percent on their game on this evening, and no amount of pre-show bitchiness could take away from that. Indie pop can be a very iffy genre—at its best, transcendent pop perfection; at its worst, a bunch of mediocre musicians and off-key singers patting each other on the back for writing simplistic lyrics for songs that all sound virtually identical. As indie pop’s most successful band, Belle & Sebastian sometimes take the bullet for the sins of the entire genre, but their style is really antithetical to its evils. Band leader Stuart Murdoch is the closest thing indie-dom has to a Brian Wilson or a Burt Bacharach, a true genius when it comes to constructing literate pop songs backed by beautifully structured, classically-inspired arrangements. And the other seven regular members of the band, most notably guitarist Stevie Jackson and cellist Isobel Campbell, contribute their own distinctive songs and lend perfect instrumentation, ranging from brass to keyboards, to Murdoch’s prolific compositions.
Nearly every one of Belle & Sebastian’s strengths was on display on this night in Detroit, though, to the likely dismay of some of the males in the audience, there was no Isobel Campbell. Her attendance on the tour had been somewhat sporadic anyway, supposedly because of illness/exhaustion, but on the morning of the Detroit show she packed it in officially. Her replacement on cello, Melora Creager of Rasputina, filled in ably, though not to the point of attempting any Isobel-penned compositions. The band, backed by a seemingly endless supporting cast of additional string and wind players and backup singers, played an incredibly even distribution of numbers from nearly all their albums (including the soon-to-be-released Storytelling soundtrack; their first album, Tigermilk, was the sole exception) and about half of their non-album EPs and singles. The set list was a Belle & Sebastian lover’s dream, with favorites such as “Like Dylan in the Movies”, “Put the Book Back on the Shelf”, “Boy With the Arab Strap”, and “Seymour Stein” all making appearances. Unlike many bands who rely on high production values and intricate arrangements in the studio, Belle & Sebastian actually sounded even better live than on record in many cases, with the high energy ‘60s throwback “Legal Man” a particular improvement over its recorded original.
What made the show even more wonderful, and contrary to what I had been led to believe would be the case beforehand, was that Belle & Sebastian really seemed to be enjoying themselves, with Murdoch and Jackson trading off on audience banter and anecdotes, and eliciting audience participation at every turn. Their gentle mocking of some of the more egregious audience behavior was hilarious, and displayed a sense of humor that completely debunked the myth of Belle & Sebastian as solemn schoolmarms making fragile pop music for wimps. At one point they even brought their manager Neil onstage and passed around champagne to celebrate his daughter’s birth earlier that day. True to their pattern on the tour, they commemorated the event by playing a locally authored tune, in this case the Supremes’ classic “Baby Love”.
Later on, when they came out for an encore following their regular set, they played another cover, an absolutely dead-on version of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season”, just as perfect for Friday night dancing as Murdoch claimed it was. And, as they closed out the evening with a rousing version of “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” (as my companion noted, it doesn’t get much cooler than hearing several hundred people pleading “get me away from here, I’m dying” at the top of their lungs at a rock concert), I was completely satisfied. This was truly one of the best shows I’ve ever attended, whether it was in Detroit or not.