People just don’t like Belle & Sebastian, they’re hopelessly devoted to them. Among tonight’s collections of hipsters, Habitat squares, C86 revivalists and out-patients, there are people who’ve trekked from America* and Japan. Why? Because the Belle & Sebastian songbook is crammed with tales of feckless idealists who, although hemmed in by boorish reality, demand the earth. We’ve a disquieting sense that they harbour the sane, giddy romantic part of us that age has whittled away. And they make our compromised spirits soar anew.
We expect tonight to merely, if deliriously, confirm what we already know – that we love them more than life itself. And, bless their enigmatic Scottish socks, they’ve tried to make it A Special Experience. Hence the venue, a gilt-edged grand hall, and the following day’s matinee performance. It’s not quite Spike Island, but it’s getting there.
As opener “Put The Book Back On The Shelf” stumbles to a close, though, we’re already beginning to wonder if we’ve fallen for a band we never really knew. There should be pandemonium, voices punching through the rafters, but the painfully quiet PA means that no one even murmurs. Stuart Murdoch attempts a shimmy during a jauntier “I Don’t Love Anyone” and a few people take his lead. But it’s hopefully self-conscious.
During the interminable breaks between songs, as instruments are swapped and beers retrieved, there’s utter silence. This reverence, or crippling awkwardness, wholly dissipates any gathering excitement. At time, as the band talk amongst themselves, it’s like we’re unwelcome guests in their rehearsal room. Gigs by bands that act as magnets for rock’s outsiders have traditionally been wildly celebratory affairs; they’re about bonding and blossoming. But nothing encourages that here, especially not eight new songs in a 14-song set.
There are some fun moments though, such as Stevie ending his spectacularly spastic Orange Juice-esque solo during “Dylan” by playing the guitar with his teeth, but the cheekily charismatic bunch we’d expected are absent. They look baffled by our presence and often panicked at their own lack of cohesion. Perhaps they should, hey, practise a little and relax. There is a middle ground between The Pastels and M People, you know.
It is possible, among the debris, to glimpse greatness. “Photo Jenny” and newie “Dirty Dream” hint at Belle & Sebastian’s oft overlooked Northern-tinged pop potential. “Chick Factor”, even with its wildly out-of-tune Mellotron, rolls and swells like you’re falling in love – the Velvets at their most preciously Fisher Price. “Is It Wicked?” (sung by a terrified Isobel) is gorgeous and the closing “Rollercoaster Ride” features Stuart’s voice at its strong, plaintive best. Marry this with some beautiful crescendos of Marr-ish guitar and mournful trumpet flourishes and it’s something you’re going to treasure for life. On vinyl.
Manchester has rarely witnessed such embittered post-gig arguments. Indeed, the clap-happy souls, chuffed simply to be in the same room as their heroes, are undeterred But we, the sane, expected a gig (albeit a roughly hewn one) that would become a byword for everything uniquely elevating about going to watch a band. Instead, we got a rehearsal for a sixth-form revue.
Comedy, someone once said, is the gap between expectation and reality. Clearly, they’d never seen Belle & Sebastian play live.
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