Not everyone likes Belle & Sebastian. When Leo backed out of a birthday party to attend their final European gig of 2003, an annoyed friend helpfully summed up objections to the band: “Why bother?” he said. “All their songs sound the same.”
It was a harsh generalisation, but one that cut very much to the quick of what these self-styled Glasgow indie rockers are all about. Surveying the stage at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall before the gig—full as it was with music-making paraphernalia—we were compelled to reflect that, for a band boasting such an array of different instruments and instrumentalists, many of their songs really do sound remarkably similar.
Unlike with most bands this popular, however, the genuine beauty of Belle & Sebastian stretches beyond the catchy choruses and relentlessly upbeat major-key strumming. For in sounding the same, a kind of nostalgia circulates itself between each song, making each one a moment that seems to reflect the others. It is undoubtedly those rock riffs that first get your head bobbing—and which help explain the band’s somewhat meteoric success across the globe since they formed back in 1996—but it isn’t until you first concentrate on the dysfunctional and bizarre lyrics of “The State I Am In”, or hear the hilarious but tragic story of “Judy and the Dream of Horses”, that full-blown fascination kicks in.
Now, B&S really have their hooks inside you, and seeing them live is painfully ecstatic.
We positioned ourselves at differing points in the venue: Leo resigned himself to a sub-optimal location somewhat to the left of the stalls, with Rahul perched in the front row of the Grand Circle above. The gig began with the stage cloaked in black light, and pink searchlights scanned the audience, bouncing off the vaulted Edwardian dome of the hall. Slowly ambling into the vibrant darkness, the bandmates gently strummed up an instrumental, “Passion Fruit”. A lovechild of the electric guitar and xylophone, the song slowly unified the 12 performers on stage and their eclectic selection of noisemakers. Watching from the stalls, amongst a sea of Scottish fans, we were astonished by the communal orchestration of the band as the sounds emitted from disparate instruments merged together to form a symphony of the most sophisticated indie rock: a cellist, violinist, and trumpeter entered stage right and Murdoch began the rhumba-like “Expectations”.
Something you cannot help but notice, whether you’re a fan or not, is that front-man Stuart Murdoch is an animated cartoon character on stage—on this night, cute as hell as he hopped up and down along to the peppy intro of “Step into My Office, Baby”. But this thought was almost immediately upstaged by the ear’s piqued awareness that a French horn and string section had cushioned the hall’s mood with a melodic tenderness. “Wrapped Up in Books” featured a harmonica that transformed the auditorium into a sullen library in a creaky boxcar, pianos on “Seeing Other People” merged with horns and gradual electric guitars accented by green and black search lights as “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” yielded to “Stars of Track and Field”. The gentle yet loud articulation of a xylophone during “Piazza, New York Catcher” sent Murdoch hopping up and down the stage, again making you feel that you were in fuzzy slippers just chilling out with that adorable friend. A climactic ending to a gig and European tour that also featured a couple of Christmas songs, “Sleep the Clock Around” reunited not only all the bandmates onstage, but also all the instruments, sounds, lights, and ensuing emotions into an orchestrated synergy of unspoken dialogue between the audience and the band within the flickering intensities of white strobe lights.
While chatting later, we both concurred that one of the most compelling aspects of the show was the band’s ability to engage the audience on a number of occasions in a way similar to that in which the disparate instruments somehow came together on stage and make beautiful dialogue. Whether it was catalyzing a musical collaboration with the audience by encouraging them to snap along to “Stay Loose”, the sweet confession of guitarist Steve Jackson that “this song is for a girl in the audience I have never met before,” vocalist Sarah Martin’s invitation to a friend to sing onstage for a spell, or Murdoch’s own amused cry of “Free Sadaam!” on the very day the erstwhile Iraqi leader was captured by American troops, it is evident that Belle and Sebastian’s stage persona, like its music, operates along principles of comic yet awkward honesty. To end with a cheeky confession by Murdoch during the show: “Ahhhh, the things you think about between songs—I just thought of something now but I’ll keep it to myself.”