The first time I went to a Belle & Sebastian show, I didn’t see them. They cancelled at the last minute, well after the support band had already played. A dozen years later, I nearly didn’t get see them again, due to a ticket mix-up. But luck intervened and my longstanding drought was broken. I watched Belle & Sebastian play for an hour and 45 minutes, a well-oiled eight-piece with an added string quartet and trumpeter on a couple of songs. Like a bouncy all-star revue beamed in from the late 1960s, there was funny banter, spirited performances, cute audience interaction, and impossibly bright songs packing a surprising oomph. It was a wellspring of good vibes.
Playing a second Forum gig after conquering Golden Plains a day prior, the band mixed up the set list accordingly. Unlike the previous two nights, there was no cover of the Kinks’ ‘Victoria’, but leader Stuart Murdoch thanked punters for the chance to play so many older songs. There was a fair spread of all seven albums, including the Scottish ensemble’s debut, Tigermilk. Even tunes from last year’s Write About Love, which I’d initially found limp, worked well live: the breezy title track, mod-ish ‘I Want the World to Stop’, fragile ‘Read the Blessed Pages’, and Sarah Martin’s ‘I Didn’t see it Coming’.
In a blazer over a striped sailor shirt, Murdoch came out with an acoustic guitar in hand and scarf around his throat for the opening ‘I Fought in a War’. He then shed everything but the shirt for ‘I’m a Cuckoo’, dancing foppishly to that glaring hook. Later he alternated between piano and acoustic and electric guitars, as well as finding time to play frontman, prancing about with practiced finesse. Sideman and occasional singer Stevie Jackson got the audience to do high harmonies for his ‘I’m Not Living in the Real World’, a song he said he had once envisioned as a 1966 Who B-side.
But the older songs were an obvious boon for fans. There was the millennial pair of ‘Waking up to Us’ and ‘The Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner’, and Melbourne’s own Judy Mitchell reprised her oboe part on the splendid ’90s entry ‘Slow Graffiti’. There was Murdoch’s baseball pantomimes for ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’, Jackson’s bubbly ‘The Wrong Girl’, the T. Rex joys of ‘The Blues are Still Blue’, and the funky ‘Sukie in the Graveyard’. Tigermilk yielded ‘She’s Losing It’, ‘Expectations’, and a bit of ‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ by request. There was even a round of ‘Happy Birthday’ for a newly 18-year-old fan as well as guitarist Bobby Kildea.
‘Sleep the Clock Around’ spelled a raucous finish before the encore’s ‘Another Sunny Day’. Murdoch then introduced the band and let Jackson’s raging harmonica summon an untidy ‘Me and the Major’ to exit on. By now, Murdoch and company know exactly what to do live, such as inviting five punters to dance on stage during ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’. You’d accuse them of stagey calculation if they weren’t so willing to be playful with their beloved songs. As bookish as Belle & Sebastian can be on record, such artifice fell away to expose the pure fun of their classically crafted pop.
Q&A with Stevie Jackson and Richard Colburn
The album features the sound of Stuart Murdoch’s zip on ‘I Could Be Dreaming’. Are there any other similiar features on the record?
RC: “If you listen with the bass turned up you can hear this bumping noise. That’s Stuart. He used to like doing his vocal sitting on a chair, then he’d get into the song and start jumping up and down. Occasionally you hear this little rumble on the record and think, ‘What’s that then? Oh yeah, that’s Stuart and his wee chair’.”
How does it feel to see ‘Tigermilk’ re-emerging?
SJ: “Oh, it’s a nice feeling. It’s so long since it came out that it almost feels like it’s being releaed for the first time – 1000 copies were made, but a lot of those were given away. I remember at the launch party, they were just lying about all over the room covered in beer.”
Given the choice would you change anything?
RC: “No, it’d be trying to change an old photo.”
SJ: “I think the mistakes come to be part of what defines the album. After having it sitting there for three years, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Is it true that Stuart Murdoch’s dad owns the ‘Tigermilk’ tapes?
RC: “Stow College paid for the recording and then Stuart’s dad bought the tapes. We all own it now – Mr Murdoch still owns a big chunk of it, but he was kind enough to sell some of it back to us.”
The album features ‘The State I Am In’, which was also on 1997’s ‘Dog On Wheels’ EP. Is it true the EP version was actually recorded first?
RC: “Yeah. Actually, the version on the EP doesn’t have the band on it. Stuart was on one those music courses you get sent on if you’ve been unemployed for six months. The people on the EP are Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David and whoever else was on the course.”
How do you look back on the Bowlie Weekender?
SJ: “It was a bulls eye. What I remeber most are all the American groups. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Flaming Lips… They all looked like rock stars, which I really admired [laughs]. It was the biggest crowd we’ve really played to and it went OK, so I was happy.”
When you busked at Bowlie, what did you play?
SJ: “‘Rhinestone Cowboy’, ‘Maggie May’, ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘Keep The Customer Satisfied’ by Simon & Garfunkel. We’d have done more but we got moved on by security.”
Whose idea was it to play ‘The Kids Are Alright’?
SJ: “One day me, Chris and Richard were rehearsing, Chris picked up the bass and we started playing a load of Who songs. Then Stuart came in and started jamming on ‘The Kids Are Alright’ on melodica. We thought it would be a good idea to do it at Bowlie. We all love The Who, y’know.”