Thursday, January 19, 2006

Belle and Sebastian: yours, bewildered of Shetland...

So, Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian came into the Aberdeen studio yesterday for a wee chat, and I must say I was a bit concerned, as B&S are one of those bands I’ve never quite managed to get a handle on. The fact that they come from Glasgow, that Stuart’s lyrics are by turns phenomenally witty and movingly melancholic, indeed the overt Christian faith of their leader…all those things should have made me, if not a convert to the B&S cause, at least interested enough for some committed immersion in the works.
And yet, no. I’ve dipped into the albums from Fold Your Hands…on, and we’ve gone big on the show with Dear Catastrophe Waitress and indeed the new single, Funny Little Frog. Yet there’s always been something slippery and elusive about the band for me. Something which stopped me, well, getting it. I once mused on air that I found B&S “admirable, but hard to love”. And yet for an increasing number of people worldwide, they’re lovable to an extreme, even cultish degree.
I gave myself a crash course in B&S’s early stuff for the occasion of the interview, and pored over the excellent, revelatory Sunday Herald feature by Peter Ross. Stuart, who for years gave no interviews at all, turned out to be dressed in dapper sub-Chaplin fashion, and was open, thoughtful and friendly in a reserved kind of way, if that made sense. He was happy, for instance, to talk about his problems with ME and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. You can hear the interview for a week or so from now via Radio Scotland’s Listen Again facility.
We played the excellent I’m a Cuckoo from DC Waitress, and I confirmed the Thin Lizzy references. Funny Little Frog sounded great, too, and I was looking forward to the sold-out gig that night at Aberdeen’s Music Hall.
Support act was King Creosote, aka Kenny Anderson of Fence Records fame, and he was a revelation: a superb, soaring, sweet voice, and accordion-washed songs that caught at the heart. Very impressive. And then on to the main attraction, the hall absolutely rammed (studenty to late 30s, mostly, but with a surprising number of 40-55 year olds), top class sound system, major league light show…and me not knowing what to expect. A stranger at the ball.
It was…odd. I can imagine no other major (they can sell out Hammersmith and the Royal Albert Hall) act stopping a song half way through, having a good-humoured argument about whose fault it was, and then starting it all over again. Or, in a moment which was pure youth club, bringing onstage five err…over excited audience members to clap along during Funny Little Frog. That was almost 10 minutes, in fact, of cringe-inducing miscalculation, and yet immediately afterwards, for almost the first time, the band locked into something approaching a groove and turned into the “Saturday night band” Stuart claimed in the S Herald he wanted them to be.
It all looked very peculiar too. At time there were 12 people on stage, including a string section, with lots of instrument swapping going on, something I’ve always distrusted in a band. The bewildering array of styles and pop culture references made it sometimes feel as if the music was a kind of effect, there to illustrate the lyrics rather than combine with them. And what B&S, perhaps deliberately, do not have on their side is theatre. There is no visceral drama about their performance. It’s enigmatic, weird, adolescent. They hop and grin with daft enthusiasm, where I remember the deadly serious, furious, but still gladioli-ridden humour of the Smiths in their youthful pomp. Yet Stuart Murdoch is 37.
B&S were appealling, yes, and at times transcendent. But more if you knew the songs, if the works were dear to you from the records, and you had the thrill of simply being in the same place as performers you’ve learned to love. As an event in itself, this was not successful evangelism. It was an inclusive act of worship that left me feeling like an outsider. And, oddly, thinking of Franz Ferdinand, of whom I thoroughly disapprove for their magpie tendencies, and how much more satisfying they are as an in-concert proposition, even if you’re not a fan. They have the focus, the stagecraft, and they lack the winning, fey self-consciousness that makes B&S so beloved of those who love them, and so confusing for me.

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