Belle and Sebastian: Cuckoo at the Ceilidh

If you're feeling sinister...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…

14 thoughts on “Belle and Sebastian: Cuckoo at the Ceilidh”

  1. Advertising for TNP and only delivering Newman should be considered false advertising.

    I’m with you on “I’m A Cuckoo,” that song is great. My other fave B&S song is on that album too–“If You Find Yourself Caught In Love.”

  2. i’m going tonite in dallas. taking my lil’ bro (his first show!). a lil’ bummed to find out bejar’s not gonna be there. gonna hit the rekkid stores before the show so i may pick up a destroyer disc to make up for it…

  3. At least the bride to be could sing.

    I saw 10,000 Maniacs play a show back in the day where Natalie Merchant waved a rabid fan onstage to sing the Micheal Stipe lines to a duet. The poor dude butchered it badly. I felt horrible for him. Ugh! How embarrasing to get dragged on stage only to end up sucking.

  4. Belle & Sebastien sound so good, I must resume buying their records.

    It’s nice that Stuart Murdoch is both freakishly gifted and friendly. Bob Dylan, for instance — no reproach is meant, he is who he is, but he isn’t a warm frontman. On the other hand, maybe I caught him during the years he felt burned out from exhaustion, buried in the heat.

  5. Awww….this makes me feel sad, because I missed out on the two opportunities I had to see B&S relatively close to home.

    I’m with you on “I’m A Cuckoo” too. Most B&S fans don’t seem to like it….and most non-fans obviously don’t like it either. But really, it deserves the love.

  6. i too love “i’m a cuckoo” but when it comes to favorites, it can’t hold a candle to “lazy line painter jane.” is that the one mrs. chicago sang with them?

  7. I’m surprised that the NP were boring and that Kurt Dahle failed to deliver. Kurt is usually a blast and he often upstages Neko and Carl. Perhaps it was an off night?

    I’ve enjoyed the NP immensely with (and w/o) Neko and Dan, but for me Carl = NP (as Dan = Destroyer).

  8. i remember that show scotty. i think this happened during much of that particular tour. thier final one with natalie. can’t remember though if this guy sucked or not. i think he did. odd thing is michael stipe came on later to perform with them. i don’t see why he didn’t the duet himself. oh well.

    i forgot that belle and sebastain though were going to be in town and missed them.

  9. I saw The New Pornographers perform in early March in Winnipeg (Canada) – without Belle & Sebastian unfortunately. I, too, was disappointed by The New Pornographers’ performance. Kudos to Immaculate Machine’s singer for filling in for Neko Case – but I really noticed Neko’s absence on the vocals and harmonies. And the band’s stage presence was pretty much non-existent. Someone should set off a firecracker under Carl Newman to liven him up a bit. In the meantime, I look forward to Neko Case’s solo tour in support of her great new album “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood” – check it out!

  10. i’ve seen belle and sebastian a number of times. the last 2 chicago shows were TONS better. maybe the same old routine is getting old to me, but i’m a huge fan and for some reason, didn’t leave the show with the usual afterglow.

    i think the venue did have something to do with it – as much as i dislike the congress theatre, the shows there (in 2002, 2003) delivered an experience that was missing on friday.

    for me, new pornographers were entertaining – mostly because i had little expection. also, nora o’connor sang with them and she’s fantastic. look for her around chicago.

  11. That venue can kill it for ya. The new B & S record is really a fine piece of work and no doubt they are charmers.

    The other thing about the NPs is they’ve just been touring like monsters for a while now and maybe were phoning it in. Neko is a great foil for Newman onstage and that chemistry might’ve been missed. I thought solo AC last summer was pretty darn good, though.

    Bejar wasn’t there? Come on, that should be a selling point!

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