Scan, Lancaster Uni – Manchester, Town Hall, 27th & 28th December 1997
29th December 1997
Live Review

Sunday Night
“Take a second of the day and think of all the things which we have done this year…”

I know you’ve heard twice as many end-of-year summaries than a sane person could reasonably stomach by now, but this was, simply, the coolest thing. Belle and Sebastian, the pop group whose music has wrapped itself around my year like fine bacon around a Christmas sausage, winding up 1997 with a Classic Pop Event.

Among the many and various reasons I love Belle and Sebastian is the fact that they are scrupulous in their insistence on doing things differently. They seem to be able to exist effortlessly outside the tedious restrictions of established pop method, to be completely different to their crass contemporaries.

So there are three concerts in two days, including a matinee performance. The gigs are held in the Victorian gothic splendour of Manchester Town Hall (the most unusual venue I’ve seen since Belle and Sebastian played in an octagonal church in London this summer…). The stage, bizarrely, is C-shaped, meaning that at no point could any individual see the whole band, who swapped places for each song. And I had no chance of inspecting keyboard player Wee Chris’s reported penchant for outrageous flared loons. Most unusual of all, this is no slick pop spectacular. There are gaps between the songs as a result of the stage layout or technical problems, (one very lengthy one was due to some unspecified cello catastrophe), filled with embarrassed comments or ad-hoc songs. Stevie demonstrated how the guitar figure in the classic ‘La Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’ bore a shocking resemblance to the theme from ‘Emmerdale’, and treated us to a special rendition of Manchester’s most famous contribution to pop history: ‘Matchstalk Men And Matchstalk Cats And Dogs’. Some of the above displeased some of the capacity crowd, unhappy that the unwritten rules of rock and roll were being so blatantly flouted.

I loved it.

I love them for the fact they don’t feel the need to put on a bland standard show. I love them for the fact that they put themselves in unusual and difficult situations, as much to see what happens as anything. I love them because they seem to be standing alone in consistently taking chances in a way that none of the nominees for Brat awards could ever understand.

And I love them because, as someone wise once said, they sound fucking brilliant. Song after beautiful song, they reminded me why I adore their records and made me all excited because the new songs sounded fresher, more exciting, better still. Belle and Sebastian have a new LP out in the springtime. If songs like ‘Seymour Stein’ and ‘Loneliness Of The Middle Distance Runner’ are anything to go by, it’s going to be fantastic. Really. No pop band of the moment has such a fine grasp of pop perfection, even down to the immaculate choice of cover versions. ‘Reel Around The Fountain’ in March, this time ‘In A Nutshell’ the best song from the first Orange Juice LP, a copper bottomed classic rendered, if anything, more beautiful, shimmering and fragile than the original.

Of course, a professional journalist would be compelled to tell you of weak points and faults (indeed, one well-known and far-too-old inky scribe was reported to be ostentatiously parading his contempt for the band during the matinee). I could, and can, see none. For the first time in ages, I am too far gone, head over heels to have any kind of rational perspective. Isn’t that great?

Ordinarily, I would be warning you to catch up with Belle And Sebastian before it is too late. True to form, they confound the ordinary. They seem to be continuing upwards and onwards, each new song a new way to wring emotional reactions from me and god knows how many others in a rainy Manchester.

A fantastic night. Lots of good friends and me, all together for the pleasure of seeing the best pop group in the whole world. And the pleasure of dreaming of the new LP, as good a reason for looking forward to 1998 as any.

Tim Hopkins

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