Oxford NightShift – Oxford Zodiac, 2nd August 1997
03rd August 1997
Live Review

Question: What’s got sixteen legs, eight heads and the voice of an angel; rarely appears in public but when it does causes panic and desperation of biblical proportions? The answer, of course, is Belle & Sebastian, an unassuming, publicity-shy pop group from Glasgow who have, in the space of two short years and two discreetly classic albums, achieved legendary status among the ranks of the country’s gentle-hearted romantics and fey, dysfunctional outcasts.

The scenes outside the Zodiac beggared belief. Two hundred punters from out of town queuing for an hour to get in because they’d all booked their tickets by phone and had to endure the credit card processing rigmarole. Their’s is the panic – will they get inside before the band come on? The desperation is on the faces of another two hundred people who, with no chance of getting in, still queue up, hoping for a miracle. And miracles can happen. How else do you explain the unheralded triumph of pop beauty over the ugly lad zeitgeist? The world needs Belle & Sebastian even if they don’t seem to need the world.

On the face of it it’s all so unimposing. One pretty, late twenty-something boy with an acoustic guitar surrounded by a ramshackle troupe of musicians that include a cellist and a trumpeter as well as two keyboardists mounted on a platform in the middle of the hall because there’s no more room on stage. The music is so gentle it could evaporate in a club setting like this (they’re more accustomed to playing in libraries and cafes) but Stuart Murdoch’s gentle, folky voice holds the audience in something approaching rapture. He sings tender songs for pale, skinny people who treat him with genuine reverence.

It hardly matters that Belle & Sebastian refuse to play a ‘greatest hits’ set. Aside from a couple of new songs, as yet unreleased, everyone knows all the obscure stuff anyway. So much so that when Stuart messes up the beginning of `State I Am In’ the crowd are singing the words for him. And this is no `Wonderwall’ anthem; instead it’s a fragile lullaby with a convoluted story of confusion and angst in the mould of Nick Drake or Felt and perhaps the most beautiful song written since `Northern Sky’.

Belle & Sebastian’s influences are many and varied and crop up throughout their set, from Love to Simon & Garfunkel to The Smiths. Yes, it’s folk-pop but it’s much much more. New single, `Lazy Line Painter Jane’ is the one great song that The Beautiful South never wrote, and if the comparison makes you balk, don’t let it, it’s more the way Stuart’s voice contrasts with that of guest singer, Monica Queen, from Thrum, while its rising crescendo of 60s organ chime takes it closer to the more melodic side of the Velvet Underground. At the opposite end of the scale there is the jazzy instrumental of `Tigermilk’ before cellist/tambourinist Isobelle takes over vocal duties for the country-tinged `It’s Wicked Not To Care’, perhaps the only song ever to feature a glockenspiel solo.

The way that every softly played, carefully crafted song is greeted by rapturous applause that’s twice the volume of the music is bizarre but they seem neither fazed by such adulation nor do they play up to it. They’re happy to potter about, tuning up or swapping instruments as if in a bedroom rehearsal, before sheepishly announcing `Another new one’. There may well be many out there who will see Belle & Sebastian as the start of the rebirth of wimp-pop while others might dismiss them as an anomalous throw-back to 60s folk whimsy. These people have no souls. So blinded by a haze of ugliness (did anyone else feel physically sick at the sight of John Power on the front cover of Melody Maker last month?) that they fail to see real beauty when it blooms. What a rosebud is to a garden, so Belle & Sebastian are to pop music. Wake up and smell the blossom.

Set List:
The State I Am In
Simple Things
Seymour Stein
Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying
Sleeping The Clock Around
Is It Wicked Not To Care?
Like Dylan In The Movies
Ease Your Feet Into The Sea
Lazy Line Painter Jane
I Don’t Love Anything

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