Artist: Belle & Sebastian
Venue: Moody Theater (Austin City Limits Live)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 16 July 2013
Opening Act: Blitzen Trapper
01. Judy Is a Dick Slap
02. I’m a Cuckoo
03. Dirty Dream Number Two
04. The Model
05. I Want the World to Stop
06. To Be Myself Completely
07. Lord Anthony
08. Belle and Sebastian [tease]
09. If She Wants Me
10. Piazza, New York Catcher
11. I Can See Your Future
12. If You’re Feeling Sinister
13. Your Cover’s Blown
14. Simple Things
15. The Boy with the Arab Strap
16. Legal Man
17. Judy and the Dream of Horses
18. The Blues Are Still Blue
19. Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying
Despite releasing their last album in 2010 (Write About Love), Belle and Sebastian didn’t get around to touring in Texas until now. They’re about to release another b-sides and rarities collection, The Third Eye Centre. However, they weren’t really touring for either album, as far as I could tell: they only played two songs from last album and two songs that are listed on the upcoming compilation (albeit in remixed form). Their main interest seems to be walking through their long back catalog, selecting choice songs from their scattered assortment of LPs and EPs.
But first I should mention the opener, Blitzen Trapper. Hailing from Portland, Oregon, they were quite a bit more country than I would have guessed. It didn’t overwhelm their songs, but it was also clearly intentional. The twang of the lead singer, the somewhat clichéd bends of the lead guitarist, and the naturalistic themes of the lyrics seemed more than a coincidence. However, the band was clearly rooted in rock; the guitarists had some good parts, and there were several conspicuous (but certainly not distasteful) synthesizer lines. I kind of liked the band but I just couldn’t really get into it. I suspect that they have some interesting work in their catalog, though.
Belle & Sebastian, nominally a seven-piece outfit, hit the stage with thirteen musicians. Most of the musicians played a variety of instruments, so it’s hardly even try to say who did what. While the addition of a string quartet and an extra cellist/keyboardist/percussionist/vocalist hardly surprised me, the addition of another guitarist/bassist did, since the band already featured four people that regularly alternate between guitar, bass, and whatever else (I’m counting Sarah Martin, for those comparing notes). He was far from extraneous; it’s just that the arrangements were apparently more complicated than I had previously imagined. The other surprise was that trumpeter Mick Cooke was absent, replaced by a man only referred to as CJ. Cooke was originally only a guest musician in the band, but I had thought he had been full-time for over a decade. Perhaps he was on break. Or sick. Or just busy.
Precision and meticulousness of arrangement is perhaps to be expected with this band, but it is amazing how complex their sound is. (It speaks well of the mixing desk technicians at the venue as well.) It’s almost like an orchestra, where you can be listening to one set of instruments, or one side of the stage, but then realize that something entirely separate is happening on another side. The parts manage to blend together so you can gloss right over it if you aren’t listening carefully, but with thirteen musicians, there’s room for a lot of action.
I should also note that the band is surprisingly versatile and high-energy. Most of the musicians play several instruments and sometimes would switch between them in the middle of a song. (Sometimes they also just left the stage or sat down.) Lead singer Stuart Murdoch spent most of the time jumping around stage while singing or joking with the audience between songs. At one point he let an audience member apply mascara to his face while singing; during another song, he ran through the crowd and danced with them. During “The Boy with the Arab Strap”, Stuart chose six or seven fans to come up on stage and dance. They managed to stay up there through “Legal Man” as well, even though they accidentally unplugged Stevie Jackson’s guitar and almost blocked two of the hired hands from reaching their instruments at crucial moments. I guess when I say the band was high-energy, I really just mean that Murdoch was high-energy, but all the other movement on stage contributed to that perception as well.
For a fan of the band from beginning to end, it’s hard to complain about the setlist they performed. They played something from every album except Tigermilk and Storytelling and they hit several of their EPs and singles along the way, too. Few songs were really a surprise except perhaps for the opener, “Judy Is a Dick Slap”, a bouncy instrumental b-side to “Legal Man”. Apparently, the band typically freely considers requests made online before their shows, which is why the band attempted “Belle and Sebastian”. Murdoch and Jackson could only remember most of one verse, but defended themselves that the request was only made that same afternoon and they’d never played the song live. (Sarah Martin countered that they had in fact performed the song once in 2010.) And while I’ve never found “Simple Things”, “Lord Anthony”, or “Piazza, New York Catcher” to be the band’s best songs, the performances were still good, and the inclusion of songs like “Your Cover’s Blown”, “Legal Man”, and three songs from If You’re Feeling Sinister more than made up for it. I was also happy to see both Jackson and Martin take the lead on one song each (“To Be Myself Completely” and “I Can See Your Future”, respectively).
The mood of the show was that of a party. The vibes were good, and even in such an atmosphere of fun, the band hardly missed a single note despite all the complexity of their material. The members of Belle & Sebastian are quite professional, but they still seem like the types to be unassuming and friendly if you saw them on the street or at a bar. It’s hard not to wish that they were your friends.
Blitzen Trapper: B
Belle & Sebastian: A
P.S. Two tangential thoughts: first, the venue was kept at a temperature so cold that I was shivering for half of the concert. It may be Texas in July, but it was also in the middle of a thunderstorm and the extreme A/C was overkill. Second, I’m amazed by the presence of bike racks on every street corner of downtown Austin. In most places one struggles to find a good place to lock up, but here I had a well-lit spot right in front of the entrance!