3rd May, St David’s Hall, Cardiff
Nobody who writes a song like ‘The Party Line’ expects to perform it in front of a seated audience of 1500 bobbing heads and tapping feet. The single from the latest Belle and Sebastian album (their ninth), Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (2015), is a stomping Europop sweat-breaker. Few things can feel flatter than big synths in the wrong room. And after a subdued kick-off with the marvellous ‘Nobody’s Empire’, followed by a jaunty ‘I’m a Cuckoo’, by the time this track kicks in we are still in an oddly idiosyncratic atmosphere of a party all bound up. But St David’s has a long proud history of welcoming diverse acts even though the main auditorium was built with the contemplative concert audience in mind. The result often is that an audience really has to make what they will of the night, and perhaps the band has to work that little bit harder too. What this means is that St David’s can be a tough venue for a pop act, but that it can be an endearingly memorable night when it comes off. And of course whereas some are more inclined to stick to the format, some need no encouragement to leap over chairs and do their thing. Belle and Sebastian fans know how to have a good time.
Still, ‘The Party Line’, which should have been a live highlight, was unfortunately quite flat and muted. So the band stepped it up, Stuart Murdoch stepped it up too, and the audience went with him.
Murdoch is an exceptionally charming front man, and his camaraderie with guitarist Stevie Jackson, as well as his back and fore with the audience, weaves into the atmosphere. Belle and Sebastian do not take themselves quite as seriously as their records suggest they do, and here they come across as a band who love to play and love to play together. A snippet of an old YouTube clip of Ivor of the Engine halfway through the set – something Murdoch remembers fondly as a kid and wants to share with his Welsh audience – is just one of many endearing moments from a band who are clearly relishing being on the road again.
So, not long in the audience begin to unpeel themselves from their theatre seats and slide in droves down the aisles. By the time of the closing tracks, and when the looping twangs and buoyant recorders of ‘Boy with the Arab Strap’ are in full swing, it seems for a moment that there are more audience members dancing on stage than there are watching from the stalls. The band, who never miss a note, are lost in the waves of swaying arms and bobbing heads. ‘It’s getting all a bit Woodstock up here,’ says Jackson, and by this point there really was a growing atmosphere that the night belonged to the carefree.
Belle and Sebastian’s music, of course, on a sonic level has always had a reputation for lightness, for a fey melodic edgelessness that has never really done them justice. Deep beneath their surface there are the bones of a rock band that occasionally peak out on tracks like ‘Stay Loose’; and if Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance has one and half feet in the Europop camp, it only makes them even more interesting. Tonight the new songs stand shoulder to shoulder with the classics that are brought out. ‘I’m A Cuckoo’ and ‘…Arab Strap’ have aged phenomenally well (as have the albums they hail from), and treats such as ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ and ‘Sukie in the Graveyard’ contribute to a gig that has some of its richest moments in its quieter ones.
The band, on night one of their new UK tour, do not take long to get up to speed, and once they are in step with the audience the speed of take off is rapid. And it is a gig in which band and audience seem to feed off each other throughout. Belle and Sebastian are not a band to go through the motions, and if they can come across as a little polished and po-faced on record they are neither of those things in the flesh. Toward the end of the gig, Murdoch responds through the mic to a fan who asks if she can join the band, and it’s doubtful if there is a single member of the audience (at least no-one who has ever plucked a string or plunked a key) who doesn’t think, ‘Now that would be a good way to spend the summer.’
Photo credit: Soren Solkaer