Belle & Sebastian performs in Florida last fall
Belle & Sebastian performs in Florida last fall. Frontman Stuart Murdoch is at center.

Belle & Sebastian, a Scottish indie pop band formed in Glasgow in January 1996. Just as Belle & Sebastian’s records often smuggle sordid material under the guise of wistful and elegant pop music, so this is not all it initially seems.

Somerset house is one of London’s most beautiful building’s overlooking the Thames and containing the head office of the Inland Revenue. In winter, the courtyard hosts an ice rink; in summer, they put on gigs.

And while cliché has Belle & Sebastian fans to be the kind of well-behaved museum-goers who would treat this environment with reverence, in fact it’s one of the booziest gigs we’ve ever been to. Two trips to the gents reveal an empty vodka bottle in one cubicle and a smashed lager one in another, while the bar is serving beer in enormous two-pint glasses. It’s time like these that you remember Belle & Sebastian are from Glasgow.

As if to acknowledge these contradictions, the seven-piece start their set with a Bacharach-tinged instrumental called ‘Fuck Shit Up‘ before settling into ‘La Pastie De La Bourgeoisie‘. For years, Belle & Sebastian were famous for live crimes including coming on drastically late, standing with their backs to the audience, performing nothing but unreleased material, playing so quietly as to be inaudible, on a really bad night, all the above.

However, it’s immediately obvious that they’ve cast aside their former perverse amateurishness along with ex-member Isobel Campbell, and have decided to put on a show.

After a rousing ‘Step Into My Office, Baby‘, front-man Stuart Murdoch strips off his stripy Breton top to reveal a skin-tight Cliff Richard T-shirt before the band launch into ‘Wrapped Up In Books‘, a song which Cliff’s lawyers have decided plagiarizes his ‘In The Country‘. There’s also formation dancing.

Belle and Sebastian
Stuart Murdoch and Stevie Jackson of Belle and Sebastian perform during the Austin City Limits Music

However, it’s not all knockabout. ‘I Fought In A War‘ begins with Stuart singing a spellbinding a cappella, while ‘The Boy Done Wrong Again‘ shows that you don’t have to moan, wail and cut yourself open onstage to move people profoundly. Mick Cook‘s plaintive trumpet on ‘Dog On Wheels‘ would make mariachi weep. At their best, there’s an open emotionalism to Belle & Sebastian that burns through their indie diffidence and explains why they’re (maybe surprisingly) huge worldwide.

This being a special gig, Belle & Sebastian add a couple of surprises. The first is a cover of Madness’s ‘Embarrassment‘, for which Stuart dons a pork pie hat in homage to the Nutty Boys‘ trademark look. The second comes after Stuart teases the audience: “You’re so well behaved. Don’t you want to fuck shit up? We’re in the tax office – let’s smash a window.” And after more banter about “the year we made it to a higher tax band” they do ‘Taxman‘ by The Beatles, hastily adding cries of “Tax the rich!” it’s gawky and endearing, but musically flawless.

Knowing they’re on the home straight, the rest of the gig consist of such recent soaraway B&S hits as ‘Legal Man’ and ‘I’m A Cuckoo‘, although sadly the multi-part extravaganza ‘Your Cover’s Blown‘ is presumably too difficult to replicate live.

It matters not. After two hours, we’re as replete as the main with the two-pint glass, and the Inland Revenue’s windows remain intact.

© Alex Needham @ NME 31 July 2004

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