Something a Little Different: Belle and Sebastian

Our gal on the spot checks back in with a review of Scottish lovelies Belle & Sebastian…

Belle and Sebastian Captivates the Crowd at the Congress Theatre, Chicago

The last time I saw Belle and Sebastian perform was at their U.S. debut at the College Music Journal (CMJ) Festival in New York in September 1997. Performing at an old synagogue in Greenwich Village, the troop was a timid group of kids from Scotland, who despite remarkable talent as artists and musicians, seemed a bit unsure of themselves as performers. At Saturday night’s performance at the Congress Theatre in Chicago, part of Belle and Sebastian’s second-ever east coast tour [since when is Chicago the east coast? – ed.], they demonstrated significant growth as performers and put on a show equaling their beautifully-crafted music.

Belle and Sebastian’s first album, Tigermilk, originally only released on vinyl, was produced as a project for a music business class in early 1996. Since that time, this pop ensemble from Glasgow has released 4 LPs and 6 EP/singles, created the musical score for Todd Solondz’s recent film Storytelling, accumulated a massive cult following, and become one of the most inspired musical groups of the twenty-first century. Rather than buckling under the weight of these achievements, Belle and Sebastian have embraced their rise in acclaim and have developed into a team of extraordinary performers as well as artists.

At the Congress Theater, Belle and Sebastian put on a true performance of the kind that is rare among contemporary four-piece pop music. Making up Belle and Sebastian’s extensive cast are Stuart Murdoch, Stevie Jackson, Sarah Martin, Chris Geddes, Mick Cook, Richard Colburn, Bob Kildea, and Isobel Campbell (who unfortunately stayed home this tour), and an entourage of back-up musicians, including a full violin section. Five years ago at the CMJ show, vocalist and front man Stuart Murdoch was a shy poet-singer who had a hard time remembering his own lyrics and seemed a bit intimidated by the crowd. By contrast, Stuart entered the stage Saturday night sporting a Cubs hat and jersey, in honor of the Chicago crowd, and demonstrated a control of the crowd that only a few possess.

And yet, despite his impressive development as a performer, he has lost none of the humble and unassuming quality presented 5 years ago. To win over his audience, he needed no showy pretense or gaudy showmanship but merely a natural ability to connect with the crowd. Like the fitting line from “Too Much Love” – “But underneath I am the same as you” – during which he pointed at several audience members, he came across less a rock star than as one of us. Stuart could be the guy next door or an old friend from school you’d grab a beer with on Saturday night. His eyes seemed to twinkle in response to cheers from the crowd, and he encouraged audience participation, pulling a couple of girls on-stage to help out during the opening number and turning the microphone over to group near the stage during another number. Demonstrating the fuzzy line between audience and performers, Stuart encouraged an on-stage wedding proposal by an audience member. The newly engaged couple (she accepted of course) was invited on stage for a song, after which Stuart shook their hands and kissed the bride-to-be on the cheek. Throughout the show, the audience responded to the performance as they sang, danced, and clapped along to poppy numbers, such as “Judy and the Dream of Horses,” but fell utterly silent during a lovely performance of “You Made Me Forget My Dreams.” The human quality of the performers in the context of their elaborate and tightly executed performance made the show wonderfully engaging.

Especially for the windy city, Stuart and singer/guitarist Stevie Jackson broke into an impromptu and humorous rendition of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now,” leading Stevie to comment “it’s as if punk never happened,” which was not far from the truth Saturday night, as Belle and Sebastian’s melodic pop harkens back to 60s pop and folk music. With complex musical composition and truly poetic lyrics, Belle and Sebastian weave songs that are much more substantial than the average pop/rock tunes we typically hear. To prove they have some rock and roll in them, however, they closed the show with a cover of “The Boys are Back in Town.” In a rare and admirable gesture, Belle and Sebastian declined to play an encore, and though many may have been disappointed, I thought it showed an unusual integrity. Stuart aptly stated during the show, “We usually do something a little different,” and Saturday’s performance was definitely something a little different.

34 thoughts on “Something a Little Different: Belle and Sebastian”

  1. Oh no, Derek! You’ve gone all swarmy on us. Did you wear your cardigan sweater?I almost caught them in Austin two weeks ago, but I was on a business trip and had to work late that night. I wish now that I’d gone.

  2. Who is this Scott guy, anyway!?!?Nice review Helen! Glad they were a pleasant surprise. I was double-pissed that I missed the Detroit show when I found out that the young, all-girl group Slumber Party opened up for them. Who were the openers at this one?

  3. Slumber Party opened here, too, and they were very good, not very Detroit-ish. In fact they most reminded me of a band from the west coast called the Aisler Set…And Scott, did you play in the MC5?

  4. Oops, Didn’t read the whole title and by-line. Sorry. Nice review!Damn, man. I love Slumber Party. That really frickin makes me made. At least I won’t miss Star Wars this thursday. I’ve got my tickets for THAT!

  5. Slumber Party is part of a different and less noticed Detroit scene that is mostly headed up by Matthew Smith. He produced they’re newest album and is in Outrageous Cherry (check ’em out, they’re cool. I recommend No Escape From the Infinite) as well as other bands that all have that retro, breezy feel to them. Plus, they’re on the West Coast Kill Rock Stars label which probably influences their sound a bit too.Scotty are you an extra in the new Star Wars movie?

  6. I don’t know. This review was kind of windy, boring, and one sided. I usually look for something more insightful, or humorous on this site.

  7. That’s really funny…Erin was just saying that she wanted Mustard Man as wallpaper…you read her mind!

  8. Just wanted to point out that Isobel didn’t stay home the whole tour – she appeared in New York when I saw them!Er, also, it’s an “ADMIRABLE gesture” not admiral (last paragraph) – we’re not talking about the navy! – and “an UNusual intregity”, not usual. Sorry, I proofread as part of my job and it just never shuts off.Otherwise, great review!

  9. Damn, Helen. The proofreaders have arrived!Nancy – you missed Derek’s faux pas of spelling Scottish with only one t. Also, is Isobel’s butt as big as everyone says it is?

  10. oops, I guess I should have checked my spelling a little better…I proofread as part of my job, too…I’m embarassed! I’m glad Isobel didn’t sit the whole tour out, I heard she was afraid of flying because of 9/11…and no, she doesn’t have a big butt, not that it matters…that’s mean, Proptronics!!

  11. It’s not mean, I didn’t say whether I approved or disapproved of butt size. Maybe I’m a secret cult follower of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s preachings? I really did read a review of one of the Europe shows and the reviewer really went into great detail as to the enormous size of her arse.

  12. well, that’s horrible, whether you like big butts are not, I promise as a woman, I would not want the size of my ass to be part of a review…what does her ass have to do with her music? it’s terrible that a woman gets judged by what she looks like on stage.

  13. and men don’t? You can’t tell me that when you hear a male-sung song that really strikes you, deep down you hope he’s dead handsome.Also, it was partially a joke, the B&S fansites were rambling on and on about the review that discussed her butt for months and I thought someone else might have picked up on my comment. But, you do raise a question, why shouldn’t women be judged by how they look onstage? It is a “show” and an attractive person adds to the overall effect of the show, don’t you think?Personally, I like my bands to be good looking. My idea of good looking isn’t defined by white bread America though, either

  14. Come on, Proppypants, from where I’m standing, yes it is possible (for a woman anyway) to listen to music and not give a rat’s ass about the singer’s appearance, e.g. Guided By Voices as mentioned in Johnny’s earlier article. Admittedly, my first aquaintance with most music is of a purely aural nature, and until the time that I get to see a band live, I don’t even bother to think about their visual appearance. But maybe that’s because I listen to music for how it touches my life, not for the particular qualities of the band members’ appearances. What bothers me is that I can think offhand of a lot more successful male musicians that don’t fit into the “attractive” category than female, and I wonder why that is. If it’s about the hot chicks onstage and dreaming that they’re singing just for you, then just be honest about your motivations for “listening” to their music.By the way, has anyone else noticed the blatant online flirtation between Helen and Proptronics on this site? Geez, you guys, get a room and go talk about butt size in a galaxy far, far away (random episode 2 reference…it opens today, y’all!)

  15. Ok, Gracie. That IS why I bought my first PJ Harvey album, but at least it’s still good music.Also, I’m not necessarily claiming that I only appreciate good looking musician’s. In certain styles of music, I think sex appeal is part of the show. I’m sticking to my guns on this one, even if the guns only run skin deep.

  16. oh, jeez, I was just trying to make light of this whole thing and not get into a feminist argument with these people. I started it, I know, but I’ve been there before, and it’s a waste of breath…Also, if you were insightful, you would notice the irony of what I did, which was “objectifying” Mr. Proptronics…not necessarily flirting…And to my friends at GloNo, I’m not saying by any means that your anti-feminist :)

  17. Ahem, please insert the word “be” between “to objectified.” Also, I take back every comment ever made in regard to spelling errors and word omissions.

  18. alright, i know people really don’t want to get into a pro/con feminist argument here, and that’s not what i intend to do with the following. so, one can only be considered feminist singer or a serious artist if she isn’t attractive while performing on stage? should we always second guess our intentions of enjoying a show more if the performer is attractive? i’d hate to think that if i go to a concert and the performer is especially appealing that i would walk away feeling even less of myself. hell no! i say shake what your mother gave ya and play that guitar. why are there more successful male singers that don’t fit into the conventional “attractive” category? well, for one, attractiveness is subjective and each gender approaches it differently. though both are drawn to the pleasing esthetics of an attractive person, men are more apt to fixate purely on the physical, while women are more apt to romanticize and idealize a person into a more desirable form. this is why i believe that romance novels sell so well and fat dopey guys still can date hot chicks.second, music, especially the genres we constantly touch upon here at glono, have an audience that consist primarily of men. no self respecting rock snob male is going to care if pollard’s caring around a paunch from too many years of tilting back cinci cream ales. they’ll probably identify with him more and usually follow a career along through it’s ups and downs picking up a majority of his crappy solo releases along with all the great stuff that gbv does. though, we’ll forever drool at the site of liz phair in panties. hell, didn’t jake even post that pic on this site before?i’m not sure if i can speak for all the guys on this site, but i’m sure the group here doesn’t solely base there music choices based on appearance only. sure, every now an again we’ll be swayed by a pretty package (again, beauty is subjective) prop with his purchase of the first pj harvey album, jake with his all-american fascination with britney spears, and my unwavering love of liz phair. aw shucks, they all happen to be attractive and interesting performers in their own right. and yes, there’s a reason i said performers, because even though someone like britney can sing, she’s not a musician, but that doesn’t hold me back from pausing to gawk at the tv everytime she’s on mtv.

  19. I have to agree with the idea that women tend to romanticize and idealize a person into a more desirable form. I think women often find men (or other women) attractive because they respect them as performers. And I certainly think that a woman can and should be considered a serious performer even if she’s attractive on stage, Liz Phair and PJ Harvey are great examples…I just always struggle with the problem that how a woman is perceived is so tied up with how she looks. In some ways it’s great, you can get a long way by taking advantage of that fact, but on the other hand there are times when you want other things to be valued beyond what you look like. It’s just a dilemna.

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