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.