Live Reviews

Belle and Sebastian @ Apollo, Manchester

7 December 2010

The last couple of years has seen a resurgence of the indie pop movement. Strong albums courtesy of Allo Darlin’, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart and Standard Fare, the growth of the Fortuna POP! label and the growing popularity of the Indietracks festival all point to a genre most definitely on the up. It’s been quite surreal then to see, of all people, Belle and Sebastian stood on the sidelines for most of it. This is a band that to many have been a byword for fey, literate pop music for the past 15 years in the same way that Orange Juice or Sarah Records were in the 1980s.

But now they’re back. Not content with releasing an album that sent the blogosphere giddy with excitement, or recording a half-hour film to accompany it, now they’re ending the year with live shows too. Not only that, shows featuring the London Contemporary Orchestra. Crumbs.

From the opening chords of If You’re Feeling Sinister, the orchestration adds flourishes and atmosphere in the right places without coming across as overbearing or laboured. It is merely setting the scene, though for the mesmerising and rapturously received two hours that follow. Such is the strength of the performance that even material from current long player Write About Love – which on record doesn’t always compare favourably against earlier material – sounds as fresh and punchy as anything else played over the course of the evening.

I Want The World To Stop rattles along with a newly-found urgency and sense of purpose, while I’m Not Living In The Real World sees the first mass singalong of the evening. It’s clear that the setlist has been chosen carefully to make the most of the added punch, melody and sonic layer that the orchestra gives, especially as it comprises songs that either feature strings on record (such as I’m Waking Up To Us, Lord Anthony or I Fought In A War) or those benefitting the most from their inclusion (pretty much anything off If You’re Feeling Sinister). Even the fact that the set contains nothing whatsoever from debut Tigermilk can’t detract from it.

A welcome surprise is the discovery of Stuart Murdoch the showman, who can be found dancing and gyrating like Jarvis Cocker‘s long-lost brother, standing atop monitors, perching on the edge of the stage, and running down the Apollo’s aisles and climbing back to the stage over the backs of chairs. All of this is fitting during a set that seems to transcend its tag of fey indie-pop, with a richer, punchier, fuller sound than on record. That doesn’t mean detractors of all things ‘twee’ would be without ammunition, though – getting fans on stage to dance and giving them a medal afterwards would see to that.

While the whole night is a spellbinding spectacle, the last third of the setlist is where Murdoch and co really put the boot in. A sweeping Dirty Dream Number Two and an infectious The Boy With The Arab Strap set the tone for an end of set charge seeing Judy And The Dream Of Horses transformed into a bouncy, brassy pop hit, followed by an incendiary rendition of Sleep The Clock Around. As an If You’re Feeling Sinister-heavy encore culminates in the orchestra joining Murdoch at the front of stage for a dance, it’s impossible not to smile. Belle and Sebastian may have been slumbering the past few years, but on this evidence they’ve clearly been attacking the espressos for their return. Let’s just hope it’s not such a long time between drinks next time.

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