Playing three intimate, informal nights in one of Glasgow’s oldest university halls as part of the West End Festival is a very Belle and Sebastian way to celebrate their 20th birthday, and it got the band wondering how far they had come in all that time. “Across the road,” they quipped.
Belle and Sebastian | Rating: **** | GUU, Glasgow
Actually, the official posh celebrations will take place next week in the esteemed Royal Albert Hall but it’s fair to conclude that Belle & Sebastian are still very much rooted in their hometown, from where they seemed to arrive fully formed in 1996, releasing two cult albums in that first year. Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister were striking windows into the poetic worldview of frontman Stuart Murdoch, a twentysomething ME sufferer with a gift for offbeat storytelling.
His songwriting skills were amply demonstrated by opening number The State I Am In. As track one, side one of their debut album, this would be many fans’ introduction to Belle & Sebastian, a fragile, weird and witty tale wreathed in twanging guitar which still invites rapt attention.
Gorgeous songs from both albums - the yearning Like Dylan In The Movies, pulsing Electronic Renaissance, the beautifully direct I Don’t Love Anyone - formed the bulk of the set but, following Tigermilk’s pacey second track Expectations, the band opted to play “fast and loose” with their back catalogue, secure in the knowledge that their partisan audience would know and love the “deep cuts”, such as Put The Book Back On The Shelf, a bittersweet number so old and rarely aired that Murdoch felt the need to supply some historical linguistic context.
I Could Be Dreaming is also rarely played - “and here’s why” deadpanned guitarist Stevie Jackson, before providing the musical riposte to such self-deprecation. The wistful Seymour Stein was Jackson’s response to missing a meeting with the eponymous record company executive in that first crazy year when everyone wanted a piece of the band, while Murdoch recalled his bedridden days on the more recent track Nobody’s Empire.
The setlist allowed for a degree of cosy nostalgia but also for carefree celebration. A handful of fans were invited onstage in defiance of health, safety and creaky floorboards, before the dancing kicked off in earnest to the irresistible groove of The Boy With The Arab Strap, and continued right through a closing salvo of songs to appeal to the heart, soul and feet.