STEP INTO SOMERSET HOUSE, BABY
"Watching Stuart sing, I'm transported back to the long winter of 1998, the happy times that became bad times, and the song that kept running through my head as I sat at Digbeth coach station in Birmingham, waiting to be driven away from a love that had gone sour. This is the power of Belle and Sebastian's music, like the power of all bands that are dear to your heart: the power to wake memories that you thought you'd buried, the power to get old times rising to the surface through a simple turn of a note, or a lull of guitar."
Jude Rogers reviews Belle and Sebastian for 3AM.
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
It's funny how first impressions change. When Belle and Sebastian first seeped into my mind's muddy soup, I thought they were an oompah band; a collection of moustachioed elders jigging around with accordions in their hands and yesterday's supper in their beards. A friend, with whom I went Inter-Railing in 1997, spent our fortnight's trek around French bars and Dutch campsites singing spry, meaty tunes called "Fox In The Snow" and "Magpie", dancing along to them with gusto. A few months later, I heard the band's second album, If You're Feeling Sinister properly, and roundly smacked said friend around the temples. These songs were fragile little flowers, as twee as pink hairslides, grounded in a wistful world of shyness and sensitivity, of teenage crushes and schoolyard secrets. The band themselves were notoriously evasive, which only increased a romance around their music that they were eager to fashion. Their music was reticently played and you felt if you ever saw Belle and Sebastian live, they'd be hiding behind the mixing desk as you tried to cheer them on-stage.
In the intervening seven years, something changed. The band that was once awkward and uneasy on stage -- or patchy to poor, if we're using contemporary critical terms -- has found confidence and from nowhere have become blessed with vim and vigour. They were the surprise highlight of Glastonbury back in June; their lead singer, Stuart Murdoch, leaving the dry sanctuary of the stage to dance near his subjects, in the rain, in a tight aertex shirt. A rainbow popped up as his song ended, which seemed fitting; an endearing blessing for a band who had finally found their pot of gold.
Tonight they are playing Somerset House, a grand 18th century building on the north bank of the Thames. It's a structure that looks like it should house minor royals rather than the Inland Revenue officers who fill it on weekdays. This is the first of two gigs here, confirming how far the band have come since their first album, Tigermilk, which they made for a New Deal music project and released on 1,000 vinyl copies. Rapidly becoming a word-of-mouth cult item, originals of the album still change hands for three figures.
Luckily for the audience, the band hasn't forgotten the beginnings of its brilliant career. They all emerge, merrily, from the wings and play the first four cuts from this very album. It's a lovely way to begin proceedings; the captivating lyrics of these early efforts still having the charm to beguile. Murdoch's vocals have always been as sweet as sugar, coupling an adolescent softness with lyrics like "my brother had confessed that he was gay/it took the heat off me for a while" (one of many great couplets from "The State That I Am In"), giving their innocence a seductive edge. His voice has only become more resonant, and soars over the crowd here like a particularly charming Scottish butterfly.
In spite of this comeliness, Murdoch's not as confident here as he was in Glastonbury, which may be the fault of the lacklustre crowd. The obsessive fans of previous outings must have Sunday tickets, as the crowds here are chin-stroking bores. It's irritating, and myself and my friends (including the said fellow who introduced them to me all those years ago as we lugged our rucksacks around Luxembourg) dance and sing along loudly to incite responses. They don't come, which is a shame when the band members play so tightly and fiercely. Stevie, the band's second vocalist, has polished up his stagecraft a treat, and Sarah, a multi-instrumentalist who's taken up vocal duties since Isobel Campbell left in 2001, now sings with confidence. The band as a whole is also brave enough to throw caution to the wind and mess about. Stevie offers a brazen "Blue Suede Shoes" while Stuart jives, and later he bashes through an unrehearsed "Waterloo Sunset". I'm still a sucker for this band's reckless, feckless sensibilities.
The band's new songs dominate the set. Although I was less enamoured than most critics by their new LP, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, favouring the touching balladry of their early EPs and the more melancholy moments on the brilliantly-titled Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Peasant, tonight's performance starts to change my mind. "I'm A Cuckoo" knocks you out with its crackle and fizz; "Step Into My Office, Baby" leaps at you like a middle manager possessed and the fantastic "Stay Loose", a deliciously Clash-y stomp, gets even the miserablists moving. Murdoch makes waves as a front-man here, happy to banter with the crowd. It's right and proper for the man I interviewed a month ago for Word Magazine, a chap that impressed me with his smart ease and charm. As the gig continues, this delicate charisma begins to unfurl. It also gives an extra loveliness to the band's earlier songs, especially on the middle eight to "Like Dylan In The Movies". An old boyfriend once put this on a mix tape for me, and told me to listen out for these lines:
You're worth the trouble, you're worth the pain
And you're worth the worry, I would do the same
If we all went back to another time
I will love you over.
Watching Stuart sing them, I'm transported back to the long winter of 1998, the happy times that became bad times, and the song that kept running through my head as I sat at Digbeth coach station in Birmingham, waiting to be driven away from a love that had gone sour. This is the power of Belle and Sebastian's music, like the power of all bands that are dear to your heart: the power to wake memories that you thought you'd buried, the power to get old times rising to the surface through a simple turn of a note, or a lull of guitar.
After a 22-song set, the band retires backstage. They return for a brief encore, against their normally principled stance on this tired charade, but it's worth it for a lovely trawl through "If You Find Yourself Ever Caught In Love" and a final hurrah with the song that I always pretend was written for me, "Judy And The Dream Of Horses". It's another song that distils Belle and Sebastian's appeal into a narrative full of nervous hopes and gentle fears, telling the tale of a young girl's dreams and indiscretions. After the band takes its bows and says its goodbyes, there's a few precious minutes until the stage lights are turned to the audience. Our hope for another set of songs disappears, but this is why we love them -- for making us feel young again, teasing us with expectations, leaving us wanting, and making sure we go home on our trains and our buses with the mistiest of eyes.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jude Rogers is 3AM's new Music Editor, writer for the monthly music magazine, Word and Editor of London quarterly, Smoke: A London Peculiar. Her favourite Belle and Sebastian song is "A Century Of Fakers" and her preferred hairslides are utilitarian kirby grips.