My favorite thing about seeing Belle and Sebastian live is that you can sense how few people in attendance ever seem to know quite what they're in for. Since the band doesn't play here, or anywhere, very often—it'd been four years since they last played New York—there's always a lot of first-timers in the crowd, people who come in knowing what they know about their records, and about everyone calling them twee all the time, and about the notion that they're very sad and very introspective, and just generally the epitome of navel-gazing indie-rock.
They are all those things, of course, but what's separated them from all the other bands who are also all those things, is their ability to make an utter spectacle of it, to be all those things on such a huge scale that they almost stop being them. They celebrate being sad-sacks by not being sad-sacks for a couple of hours.
People don't see it coming, for instance, when Stuart Murdoch starts throwing autographed footballs into the crowd, or when he invites a bunch of people up on stage to dance to "There's Too Much Love," or when he forgets the words to a few times and breaks into laughter mid-song.
Last night's set was surprisingly light on tracks form their forthcoming album, Belle and Sebastian Write About Love, which, while I'm at it, I should mention is almost too Belle and Sebastiany a title even for Belle and Sebastian. The night started with the gorgeous, floating "I Didn't See it Coming." They also did the cutesy title-track and Stevie Jackson's comically hyper and remarkably hokey "I'm Not Living in the Real World." But most of their time was spent exploring their considerable back catalogue.
The early one-two punch of "I'm a Cuckoo" and "Step Into My Office, Baby," both from 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress, goes over extremely well—it's the band at its showiest and most ambitious. They'd return to that album later on, for the triumphant "If You Find Yourself Caught in Love," and man, does it ever feel good when he sings the line, "If you're single, and looking out, you must raise your prayer to a shout." The hard-edged "Sukie in the Graveyard" is another highlight, as Murdoch's energetic dancing borders on violent. The crowd doesn't so much join him, but you can feel them wanting to.
The old stuff is well-represented too: "Like Dylan in the Movies" is just gentle and mid-tempo enough to get kind of lost in a setting like this one, as opposed to "We Rule the School," which is so strikingly gentle it could never. "The Boy With the Arab Strap" was light and airy, even despite the humidity got instead of the rain; this one people dance to. They end with two more tracks from If You're Feeling Sinister: "Get Me Away From Here, I"m Dying" is the night's closer, and it's appropriate: It is perhaps the quintessential Belle and Sebastian song, with its relentlessly peppy melody doing its best to mask the melodramatic lyrics. "Me and the Major," about an older man explaining to a younger man why the kids his age are blowing it, is the most passive us-against-them anthem you've ever heard. "I want to dance, I want a drink of whiskey," he sings, "so I forget the Major and go up to town." He shrugs it off and moves on. We all do, together, and so it seems like something more.
Photos by Nadia Chaudhury