I never thought I’d say this, but Belle and Sebastian rock. Stuart Murdoch may not have quite got the hang of chatting with a London audience (the broad Scottish accent combined with muffled sound balance meant I understood perhaps one word in ten of what he said) but he can have been in no doubt about its reaction – little short of ecstatic – to a generous set at the Astoria.
I’ve loved pretty well everything they’ve done since their damn-near perfect debut, Tigermilk, and new album Dear Catastrophe Waitress is terrific – managing to be quirky (of course), poppy and retro all at once. But nothing prepared me for the sheer talent on stage, or for the wholly different sound this eight-strong band can produce live.
Eight plus a few, actually – add in a handful of extra violinists – and an extraordinary range of instruments, most band members seeming to play at least three at random.
The fact that there was no support became understandable once you realised it must take hours just to set it all up. About eight guitars (up to four played at any one time), cello, three keyboards, flute, trumpet, assorted other brass, drums, various other bits and pieces of percussion, harmonica, glockenspiel, mouth organ… I lost count. Oh, and the violins of course.
How all this comes together to make the new West-coast sound fused with the peculiarly British (OK, Scottish) lyrics of Stuart Murdoch – tender, funny, tragic and always about characters you can readily identify with – I’ve no idea. But it does, and it’s great.
From the opening pure retro instrumental that would have made The Shadows smile – lovely twangy guitars – through old favourites and new destined-to-be-classics, this was an evening of sheer enjoyment. Even the lighting was terrific: absolutely simple but absolutely effective combinations of colour spots and zingy neon bars, sometimes looking as if someone was tossing fireballs in the air. Why can’t all bands get it so right?
The first song was the oldie Expectations, surely one of the all-time favourites for most fans, quickly followed by the brilliant and bouncy new single, Step Into My Office, Baby. We got all the upbeat numbers from the new album, and it was fascinating to watch Mick Cooke producing all those trumpet tunes that are just so B & S (especially fine on You Don’t Send Me) and then playing some very nifty guitar. We got You’re Just A Baby and The Stars Of Track And Field (starting acoustic and building to a brilliant rock finish) and a really souped up version of Losing It.
After a curious and obviously contrived conversation between Murdoch (very natty in silver leather trousers) and lead guitarist / vocalist Stevie Jackson, we got a brilliant version of I Could Be So Good For You. It took a while to sink in that it’s the theme tune to Minder. “A bit naughty of us really,” says Murdoch, “as if an English band came to Scotland and played the theme tune to Taggart…” But we love it, not only because it sounds great, but because they’re obviously having such a good time on stage.
After almost two hours of stunningly good music the crowd was finally bouncing (somehow B & S strike you as so polite and sensible, such nice people in the best possible sense of the word, that unrestrained mayhem is not really on). But they’ve given us more than we could hope, and after a short encore – Lazy Line Painter Jane (with added vocals from a girl plucked from the audience) and a stunning version of Judy And The Dream Of Horses it’s all over. Time to go home and wonder why on earth this band isn’t beating the living daylights out of all the talentless, uniform pap served up in the current charts. Now on new label Rough Trade, maybe their time has finally come?