By Hollister Dixon
On “Nobody’s Empire”, the first song from Belle & Sebastian’s newest record, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, Stuart Murdoch sings a very simple line: “Someone sang a song, and I sang along / ’cause I knew the words from my childhood.” For a lot of people who are interested in the wide world of indie rock, this is a line that works extremely well because it almost applies to the experience of seeing the band play live; not many of us have been listening to the band since childhood, but the band’s best work is comfortable enough – and feels lived-in enough – that is can feel like the sonic equivalent of a baby blanket. If any of this comes off as a back-handed compliment, it shouldn’t: Belle & Sebastian’s success for the last 20 years can be traced back to that feeling of sonic comfort, mixed with Stuart Murdoch’s witty, prep school dork songwriting and demeanor. All of these things have made the band one of the most consistent and thoroughly enjoyable pop bands of the last 20, which is something very few bands can claim. As such, getting to see the band after nearly a decade of fandom was an absolute no-brainer.
First up for the night was Seattle’s Perfume Genius, a band I thoroughly enjoy but have never seen live. If you’re familiar with Perfume Genius’ first two records, Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It, you know that Mike Hadreas is a master of quiet tension. Last year’s Too Bright was a minor sonic departure (lead single “Queen” may have been the loudest song he’s made thus far), the music of Perfume Genius is minimalist enough that you get the feeling that Hadreas is clinging to the plaintive instrumentation of his own work, as though it were a piece of driftwood. As a result, I found myself completely surprised when he and his band began churning out gurgling, ground-shaking synth beats, with Hadreas wandering around the stage, dancing at the edge, bedecked in a black dress and fishnet stockings.
The unfortunate thing is that the Roseland is remarkably hit-or-miss with the sound of bass (a massive limitation considering the hip-hop/EDM/metal shows commonly found there), meaning Hadreas struggled to be heard atop a rattling wall of shaky bass, which unfortunately harmed the carefully-crafted dynamic of the music itself. On top of that, quieter songs performed just on piano sounded fine, but got lost in the open cavern of the room. The band’s performance itself was great, and the backing band Hadreas has assembled is wonderful (shout out to bassist Tom Campesinos, a member of Los Campesinos!, the best band in Wales and possibly even the world at large), but I deeply wish this performance had taken place in a concert hall or a small, intimate space (both of which would suit all sides of the band’s songs). Next time, Perfume Genius! It wasn’t your fault!
So, then, Belle & Sebastian. What is there to be said about this band that hasn’t been said over the last 20 years? This band rocks. And, really, one of the secrets to their strength (other than the fact that they make comfortable music) is that, when you least expect it, they rock hard. And it didn’t take very long for the band to get there: after set-opener “Nobody’s Empire” (which is the most natural set opener they’ve had in ages), they launched straight into Dear Catastrophe Waitress gem “I’m A Cuckoo”, followed by the band’s string section beginning the ancient (and perfect) “Dog On Wheels” with a small snippet of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. The band lept from old and new at a breakneck speed, pairing “Perfect Couples” (including a rambling, hilarious, amazing outro done by guitarist Stevie Jackson, involving Whole Foods) with the one-two punch of “Piazza, New York Catcher” and “Electronic Renaissance” (a song I had never expected to hear from them!). As they slalomed around their catalog, they hit upon “The Boy With The Arab Strap”, which included roughly 20 people from the audience being invited onstage to dance around for the duration of that song.
I found myself blown away by the stage presence of Stuart Murdoch. He’s a funny songwriter, but it’s hard to view Belle & Sebastian as anything but reserved, even twee. Murdoch is a natural performer, and after all these years he’s mastered the ability to work a crowd, to the degree that it seems like second nature. He took regular breaks between songs to chat with the crowd (“You’re so verdant, Portland!” he told us after a story about taking advantage of Portland’s often long and winding bus routes), and sat at the edge of the stage at one point to discuss our sports teams. Small touches like these don’t always work and in fact rarely do, but in the playful hands of Stuart Murdoch, it all worked very well.
The show ended on a high note, with old favorites “Sleep The Clock Around” and the unbeatable “Judy & the Dream of Horses” (the set’s only pull from If You’re Feeling Sinister), and on a whole I left the Roseland feeling immensely satisfied. Though not the oldest band around right now, it’s wonderful seeing a band at the tail end of their second decade putting on shows with as much joy as Belle & Sebastian do, and their willingness to bounce around their catalogue constantly is truly refreshing, especially for a band touring behind a new album. After a show like that, I’ll gladly see them every chance I get.