Some weeks ago I wrote a rather positive review of Belle and Sebastian’s second album, “If You’re Feeling Sinister”, following which several of my friends roundly took the piss, saying I was overreacting to an average band. Well I have cause to revise my opinion. They’re not the best band this year. They’re without doubt the best guitar band of the nineties. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll effuse for ages.
On Saturday morning, not feeling so great, we piled into a hired car, steeled to make a pilgrimage to the mythic lands north of the border. We were ready (if not entirely willing) to brave unlimited neeps and tatties in the name of following the ascending Belle star.
Actually, it turns out that Glasgow is a handsome city where the record shopping is rather excellent and a jolly time is to be had. But over the day hung a delicious mixture of excitement and fear: excitement that we’d finally find out what Belle and Sebastian looked like, and fear that they’d be rubbish live.
See, Belle and Sebastian’s records are crystalline things of a gentle beat beauty. There’s always the fearful possibility that through bad sound, bad technique or nervousness (on record they do seem like gentle souls) the subtleties of the music might be trampled into an unseemly mud.
Two support acts, then, to span the time between wondering about Belle and finding out. V-Twin, who are nothing but a skinny, callow parody Scot-rock band. Not good enough to be compared to the already crappy Teenage FC, these are the Australian Whiteout.
Then the first thrill of the evening was Adventures In Stereo, featuring original Primal Scream guitarist and all-round pop god Jim Beattie. They’ve picked an unfortunate name for a band who are clearly influenced by Stereolab, but they play shimmering fragments of songs, spending their efforts in search of the brilliant moment. Of which they have several. I strongly suggest to you that if you fancy the thought of angel-voiced pure pop like Stereolab playing selections from the Beach Boys’ classic “Friends”, you start investing in AIS, and soon.
Belle and Sebastian feature between seven and ten individuals of varying ages and degrees of winsomeness. The group seems to revolve around Stuart, who is a cutester in a skinny, light-voiced way. They’re not afraid of swapping instruments between songs or taking steps away from trad rock instrumentation. You’re just as likely to see a member of Belle and Sebastian wielding a cello or a stylophone as you are to see them wrestle with a bass guitar. It’s an adventurousness which is rare in these arid and conservative times. But this is an indie gig, right? You have every right to expect a handful of faithful with an irredeemably low quality threshold jizzing over thirty minutes of badly performed, half-realised, over-familiar songs squashed through a threepenny sound system, followed by a long and disappointed drive homeward.
Not this time. The sound was just right, crystal clear and not so loud as to mangle Belle’s magnificence. There must have been at least a thousand of the good folks of Glasgow (including a few threatening-looking bruisers sprinkled amongst the more obviously indie fraternity) swooning at their brilliance. They played for well over an hour and a half (punctuated by na wee break for as long as it takes to have a drink and a cigarette – awww…) and their material was mostly new: just three songs each from the first and second albums. Here’s the rub, though- the new stuff sounded better, more exciting, more wrenchingly melodic than the songs we already know and love. Pretty, sad, touching, funny, what we all need in these ugly days. Oh, and they played a half speed version of “Reel Around The Fountain”, which ached liked it always should have. Is it heresy to say it was better than The Smiths live? I’ve seen the song played by both bands. I know which I loved more…
And I know this is going once again to sound like utterly unjustifiable hyperbole, but I haven’t felt like this about a guitar band for ten years: not since a few heady months in 1987 when my world spun to the now largely forgotten (not by me!) sounds of Biff Bang Pow!, The Claim and McCarthy. I am completely and beatifically in love with Belle and Sebastian. There’s something special happening and it’s happening right now. Belle and Sebastian. God, I’m so excited.
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