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The line to get into Belle and Sebastian’s sold-out gig stretched nearly two blocks and took almost a half-hour before really moving, slowly, into the club. And this for folks who already had tickets. But no one complained. We just smiled beneficently and inched along. When the opening act, Guv’ner, went onstage, the line was still a block long. We wondered what the enigmatic Belle and Sebastian would look like, let alone what they would play.
Finally, inside, Guv’ner played its last song, an electric weepie, and then thanked the audience and left. Most everybody in the audience was hypnotized by the roadies putting the pieces of Belle and Sebastian together. Even people standing 10 rows back seemed obliged to inspect the stage for any sign of the eight-piece band from Glasgow. There was much speculation over whether they would play any songs off their albums; Belle and Sebastian have been known to crash their set with all new material.
We were packed in, and there was no escaping. The wait between bands was nearly an hour. Some of the roadies elicited claps simply for adjusting mikes and tuning the group’s vintage guitars. I blame all of this hoopla and nerd lust on Belle and Sebastian. Why do they have to be so coy?
When the band finally went on, cellist Isobel Campbell appeared wearing a fuzzy tiger-print helmet. Some guy took this as a sign from the heavens that they were going to play songs off their first album, Tigermilk, of which only 1,000 copies were made. The thing has since become a Holy Grail among the innermost circle of acolytes.
Another male in the audience yelled to Campbell: “How are you, Isobel?” She looked up and smiled sheepishly. The guy, and the rest of the crowd, had been waiting all night for that moment. Coy or cloying, this band works an audience by not working it at all.
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Singer Stuart Murdoch skated nervously onto the stage. Dressed in a white undershirt and red plaid pajama pants, Murdoch looked a bit like Shaun Cassidy with his clean face and pointy nose, except with close-cropped hair. He picked up an acoustic and checked his surroundings, spying out from the corners of his eyes.
Murdoch tried to fool the audience from the startbut he got nowhere. When the singer opened the set with “Dog on Wheels,” off one of their obscure EPs, the crowd wasn’t fooled. We sang along, note for note, lyric for lyric. No mystery. Murdoch looked both genuinely puzzled and pleased, eyeing his bandmates with a bemused grin afterward. He was speechless.
Such moments go to the heart of Belle and Sebastian’s appeal. When not playing, Murdoch works as a caretaker for a church and sings in the choir. The guy definitely wins cute points in his Web diary, in which he writes intricately about doing his fucking laundry: “When I arrived (with two huge piles of washing) the place was really busy, but I settled down to wait with my book and I was soon absorbed. Eventually I got my washing in. Then the place became quiet. In fact the laundry and the book were exactly as I hoped they would be. Things don’t happen so smoothly so often.”
On the surface, the band is both canny and bashful. After releasing three albums, the latest being The Boy With the Arab Strap, pumping out three EPs during the summer of ’97, composing a Web site stuffed with fake band histories and quotes from Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” as well as contests for coloring and postcard art, and absolutely refusing to do interviews or allow photographs, the band has turned obscurantism into high art.
Murdoch fashions himself as the ultimate spy popster in a long lineageMagnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, the Pastels, Heavenly, the Cannanes, the Smiths, and, further back, “Candy Says”-era Velvet Underground, Nick Drake, and Donovan. He lives for other people’s secrets. The joy of listening to “Me and the Major,” about a military man he meets on a train and winds up talking with about generation gaps, is that Murdoch’s displeasure with being left out”The others did drugs/They’re taking it out on us”rings entirely true. He throws in a reference to Roxy Music just in case we have doubts.
Alongside the lyrical details, the band’s songcraft is also finely calibrated. “Me and the Major” is a cute, galloping song, perfect pop surely, but it also uses the harmonicaan instrument few indie rockers would ever come near. The band also knows the importance of handclaps and minor piano chord thumps. They know how to lush up choruses with stringswithout sounding like Brian Wilson. Their music can be as inscrutable as their lyrics.
The drama was built into their songs Friday night; none were given new arrangements or embellished with long jams, but the band members took their oeuvre seriously. Check out the way all the musicians fell silent before the drums pounded out to a crest before the chorus on “The Stars of Track and Field.” Or notice Campbell’s terrifically sad rendition of “Is It Wicked Not to Care?” As the song came to a slow close, Campbell stood still to repeat the lines: “Would you love me as an equal? Would you love me till I’m dead/Or is there someone else instead?” She gave it a drama that her high-pitched voice couldn’t muster on record.
Arab Strap, after all, isn’t much to listen to. A lot of the material doesn’t have the hooks and energy of Belle and Sebastian’s1997 breakout If You’re Feeling Sinister. On Arab Strap, the band has opted for a fuller sound, longer songs, and a few spoken-word bits that go nowhere. But liveaugmented by violin, cello, and trumpet, as well as piano and synthesizerthe songs swelled up on their own and floated through the crowd. The sound was impeccablewhich did not go unnoticed. If you ordered a beer, you felt compelled to whisper. If you didn’t, there were plenty of fans who would shush you. The band’s quiet anti-rock left the room spellbound.
Like any obsessives, fans delighted in the off-song moments. They had come not just for the tunes, but also to see the band. Any time Murdoch spoke, he drew wild cheers and calls for the more obscure tunes. And Murdoch & Co.’s cagey games inspired aggressive responses from their fans. The audience laughed at all the offhanded references and kept a close eye on the stage throughout the show.
The pleasure wasn’t necessarily in the songs, but in small discoveries, such as spying Campbell sticking out her tongue at Murdoch and then giving him the finger. Maybe they had been dating and were breaking up onstage! Maybe they were trying to mess each other up! We’ll never know. Murdoch and Campbell kept mum. The two performed a speedy “Sleep the Clock Around,” almost chanting the lines together in a precise delivery. And that was it.
They left the stage with some quiet thank-yous and never returned. No encores; no one allowed backstage, on orders from the band. Five minutes after Belle and Sebastian left, one woman in horn-rimmed glasses stood still and stared at the stage. She smiled sublimely and kept her gaze steady until her boyfriend asked to leave. There were at least a dozen others still loitering by, hoping for another song. Outside, one girl stood with a mini-cassette recorder pressed to her ear. She couldn’t wait to listen to her crappy bootleg, to spy some more secrets.CP