NME – London, Islington Union Chapel, 31st July 1997
16th August 1997
Live Review

Friends, we are in the presence of a phenomenom. Eight people are ranged across the stage, mostly looking superbly unlike pop stars, spending a long, long time retuning, swapping instruments and grinning coyly at one another. The vagaries of fashion, the nuances of big beat and new grave, are evidently anathema to them. The Zeitgeist is alive and well and living, for one night only, on a distant planet from here.
Belle & Sebastian, then. Their fourth London gig, their first in nearly a year. Many lovely songs about misfits and dreamers and epiphanies at bus stops. A surprisingly large number of people who hang on every word and know quite a lot about them, who can’t dance but don’t care. Truly, a phenomenon.

For Belle & Sebastian are a dazzling triumph of doing things differently. One of British music’s newest and most devoted cults has grown up around these unassuming Glaswegians, two albums and two EPs into their career, in spite of precious few interviews, photographs and shows. Even pop star patronage has been conspicuous by its absence thus far, although fellow kitchen-sink fantasist Jarvis Cocker is mobbed in the toilets just before they go on.

No. What we have here is that rarest of bands: the madly unfashionable outsiders – silent, invisible, contrary – whose success is entirely down to their records being brilliant. The antithesis to all the macho bad-boy posturing perennially in vogue, theirs is a rebellion that’s quieter, more insidious, more breathily aesthetic. As these complex songs gently unfurl and creep their way to trumpet-blaring climaxes, it becomes apparent B&S are one of this decade’s premier purveyors of frayed sensitivity, the inheritors of the cherished mantle passed from Love, to Nick Drake, to The Smiths and The Go-Betweens and on and on.

You’ll either love them or hate them. To be honest, though, it’s clear everyone here’s been waiting for a band like this for years. Sometimes they’re a bit stumbling and shambolic, looking distinctly as though they should have played live a bit more in preparation for a gig as big and awkward as this. Everyone stands up and dances – wobbles, flays; proper bedroom dancing for fast ones like ‘Judy And The Dream Of Horses’, then politely sits down again between songs, as if they were in a church. Which, of course, they are.

What else? Ooh, half-a-dozen new songs invested with just as much love and care as their predecessors, including an instrumental, ‘Tigermilk’, which almost qualifies as groovy. Duelling recorders that are fragile, but NOT twee. A frighteningly elegant sashay through ‘The Stars Of Track And Field’, plausibly the finest song about fancying discus throwers ever written. And ‘Lazy Line Painter lane’, wherein the very small but heroically voiced Monica Queen (formerly of rubbish country rockers Thrum) turns up, B&S suddenly make like the Tindersticks tumbling through ‘What Goes On’, and it all sounds like one of the most fantastic things released this year. Which, of course, it is.

“Yeah, you’re worth the tnouble and you’re worth the pain”, sings the ever-coy Stuart Murdoch in ‘Like Dylan In The Movies’, composing his own review, as the hiatuses between tunes stretch ever longer, the acoustic tuning becomes more tortuous. Yet criticism of mere technical hitches seems churlish. Belle & Sebastian, almost certainly, are the secret favourite band of many people here. At times, this seems an utterly justified state of affairs. See, we’re talking phenomenal.

Set List  My Wandering Days Are Over
Dylan In The Movies
Judy And The Dream Of Horses
Slow Graffiti
Is It Wicked?
A Summer Wasting
Photo Jenny
Lazy Line Painter Jane
Stars Of Track And Field
Century Of Fakers
Like A Rolling Stone*
Seeing Other People
Simple Things
(* Stevie played the first verse and chorus whilst the others were tuning)

John Mulvey

record reviews
live reviews