Belle and Sebastian

Friday 3 June 2011

O2 Academy, Leeds

★★★★★

“Well, it’s been a while, Leeds”, Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch announces by way of introduction. The sea of bodies at the O2 Academy is not hesitant in agreeing, as sections of the audience begin to shout, confusingly at first, ‘1998!  1998!’  “I suppose that some of you might not have been born back then”, he replies, forlornly.  “I’m always the oldest in the room”.

1998 wasn’t long after Belle and Sebastian released their debut, Tigermilk, as part of a low-key project at a Glaswegian college.  Although they’ve achieved global success in the intervening period – picking up a BRIT Award and a Top of the Pops appearance on the way – they’ve always managed to remain refreshingly at odds with the mainstream chart, making music as if the horn-and-string-drenched sunshine pop of the sixties never faded away.

Tonight is the last night of a long world tour in support of Write About Love, their first album in four years, and as I wait for them to appear onstage, I begin to worry they’ll be tired out from several months of solid touring, and in locations rather more exotic than this fine metropolis.

I’m wrong, of course.  They’re fantastic, and boldly kick off with some new ones, including the delightful ‘I’m Not Living In The Real World’.  Here, guitarist Stevie Jackson teases a little audience participation out of the room, carefully highlighting the song’s four key changes by asking the crowd to sing the melody line in four different ways.  This is achieved with a surprising measure of success.

Some of the band’s ‘greatest hits’ make a much-appreciated appearance, including ‘I’m a Cuckoo’, ‘Sleep the Clock Around’, ‘Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying’ and their “top 15 smash” (Stevie’s words), ‘Legal Man’.  All are immeasurably enhanced by organs, pianos, a trumpet and a string quartet, with almost all band members swapping instruments at least once.

Three lucky members of the public are invited up on stage during ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’.  All display massive grins on their faces as they idiosyncratically dance about the stage.  As the song ends, Stuart presents each one with a medal and a handshake, which strikes me as entirely appropriate.  Anything else would seem, for reasons I struggle to place, deeply wrong.  A fourth medal is bestowed on an audience member Stuart spots at the front, whom he notes “has come to every gig on our tour”.

I think that this crystallises what I enjoy most about Belle and Sebastian.  Unlike so many other big acts, their music and performances don’t seem at all forced, and they seem genuinely delighted to be around their fans, who in return are genuinely delighted to be around them.  In fact – and I mean this in the nicest possible sense – they seem to revel in a wonderful sense of nerdiness.  And they make excellent music, too.

As the band draws the gig to a close, Stuart takes the time to introduce and thank every single member of the crew and band, something I’ve never seen before.  Finally, following a brilliant encore of ‘Me and the Major’, they politely wave, bow and exit.  Lovely.  Here’s hoping Belle and Sebastian make a return visit – hopefully a bit sooner than in another 13 years.

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