Belle and Sebastian with New Pornographers
Riviera Theatre, Chicago, March 10, 2006
When I heard about this tour I assumed it was going to be set up as a sort of co-headlining affair. For whatever reason, I had thought both bands had achieved a fairly equivalent stature. Goes to show how accurate my “scene radar” is.
The New Pornographers were clearly just the opening band.
Poorly lit and badly mixed, the six Canadians on stage slogged through a boring set that left me wondering what happened to all those sugary hooks that are so abundant on their three studio recordings. Those albums have a sheen and a pop craftiness that was completely missing in the live setting. Why did those songs lose so much in translation? It might have something to do with the fact that neither Neko Case nor Dan Bejar ventured out with the band on this tour, and left Carl Newman to pick up the slack. But when a power pop band with solid songs is this boring live, it’s got to be the drummer’s fault. It’s his responsibility to maintain the proper energy level, and at the Riviera Friday night, the drummer failed.
The Riviera is a dilapidated shithole of a venue. Because of the odd acoustics of the room, the sound is absolutely terrible on three-quarters of the floor, like listening to your neighbor’s stereo across the hall. With the door closed. For a 2,300-person capacity theater, that’s a lot of people hearing lousy sound. And that’s not even mentioning the site lines. If you’re under six feet tall and not either right up front or seated in the balcony, you cannot see the stage. It’s a rotten place to see a show. Instead of restoring (or even cleaning) the ornate 1917 murals and other details, its owners have painted the walls a tacky Barney purple with spray-painted silver trim. But at least it’s not totally closed like the Uptown Theatre.
So I was feeling pretty grouchy by the time Belle and Sebastian took the stage. But the bad vibes immediately dissipated as soon as Stuart Murdoch stepped to the microphone. Before his band played a note, he chatted casually with the crowd, asking us if we were feeling okay after the drive to the show. He let us know that it would be alright with the group if we could find some way of releasing some energy during their show, and if not, well, we’d all go out dancing afterwards anyway. It might sound corny reading it, but if you’d heard him say it in his Glasgow accent, you’d have been as charmed as we all were.
Unless, of course, you’re an uptight asshole.
But then you probably wouldn’t have been at a Belle and Sebastian show, would you? Because even though they’ve definitely moved in a more rocking, even glammy direction in the last couple of albums, they’re still Belle and Sebastian. They might be less lispy, but nobody who makes stuff for a living would ever confuse them for a real rock group. They’re still making delicate, clever pop music. And it’s great.
There were usually seven or eight musicians on stage for any song playing a trumpet, a cello, violin and other non-rock stuff in addition to the basic guitars, keyboards, rhythm instrumentation. Everything sounded clear up in the balcony where I watched most of their set (in a broken chair), the bulk of which was loud and dancey. The twee popped up occasionally, of course. But Murdoch is a flirtatious frontman who looked cool in a plain t-shirt and skinny trousers, and he had the crowd in the palm of his hand throughout the set.
The highlight of the show came when he announced that the band gets a lot of fan mail, including an email from Chicago where a husband requested a particular song and suggested that they should bring his wife on stage to sing it with them. Apparently the band thought this was a fine idea because they did it. Of course, the couple was right up front, and while the woman was clearly thrilled to be there, she held it together enough to deliver a nice, spirited vocal. Again, this might sound like a corny stunt if you weren’t there. But believe me, it was charming and playful and fun. If you don’t believe me, you’re just a grouch.
My favorite Belle and Sebastian song is the song you’d least expect of them: “I’m A Cuckoo” from 2003’s underappreciated Dear Catastrophe Waitress. As much a tribute to the Allman Brothers as to the lyric’s “Thin Lizzy-o,” I like to play the song for unsuspecting pals who are always shocked to discover that those dual-guitar-lines are played by the masters of puss-pop. That song actually rocks. For real. So it was great to hear them pull it off live as well. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see people passing around joints and a girl sitting up on her boyfriend’s shoulders flashing her tits to the band during that song. Well, actually I would’ve been pretty surprised to see that. But I can totally picture it in my head, and it makes me laugh to imagine what kind of witty, self-deprecating response Murdoch would’ve come up with had it actually happened.
I wonder if the singing email couple is the same couple who got engaged at the last Belle and Sebastian show Glorious Noise covered…