Poor old Belle and Sebastian; like a couple planning a summer wedding, the last thing you’d expect on a mid-July evening is rain. But that’s what the band and their couple of dozen backing dancers entered the stage to, in the courtyard of the stately Somerset House.
Even worse luck was their choice of second song; Another Sunny Day (“It seems a travesty to play this to you!” says a genuinely concerned looking Stuart Murdoch, before he ducks out from the cover of the stage canopy to check how much it’s raining) But that’s not the only thing that seems to be on Murdoch’s mind tonight.
They open with Nobody’s Empire, from their recent, ninth album, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance – which represented something of a shift for them. With an injecton of synth and chorus-heavy songs, it sounded like a muted Pet Shop Boys and received a mixed response from fans and critics alike.
Perhaps a sign of the make-up of tonight’s audience (a great deal of them are wearing guest wrist bands courtesy of American Express, who are sponsoring the Summer Series run of gigs, and very few prototype B&S fans to be seen), it illicits a roar. As do the other handfull of tracks played from it. This seems to amuse Murdoch, who makes several refence to the band’s advancing years and considerable back catalogue (“This one’s 20 years old!”, “This one’s for the mums and dads”, “Sorry…another old one.”)
Whichever era of fan you are, the band go out of their way to put on a performance. Never the showiest of people themselves (although Murdoch’s stage presence has multiplied immeasurably over the years, partcularly since the release of their most upbeat album, 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress), they rely on a crowd sourced group of dancers who are very roughly choreographed, to attempt to stir a rather static crowd. They also beam a series of wonderfully kitsch videos onto a screen at the back of the stage.
Old favourites to get a look in include Stars Of Track And Field, Kissing Just For Practice, A Century Of Fakers, The State I Am In, I Didn’t See It Coming (with sugar-spun vocals courtesy of Sarah Martin) and the rarely played Mornington Crescent (“I had to get the chords from guitar.com…and they were wrong!” reckons Murdoch). Dear Catastrophe Waitress sees them a pull off a typically Belle and Sebastian twee, theatrical moment, as a tumbling waitress, struggling with a can of coke, totters about the stage.
Guitarist Stevie Jackson is, as ever, a delight to watch, offering a wry, tongue in cheek take on events; he turns new track Perfect Couples into an utterly bizarre, pschedellic and in places hysterically funny skit.
Towards the end of the set, Murdoch complains about the price of the venue’s The Jam exhibition and that his AAA laminate didn’t get him in for free. This leads on to a Jam, er, jam, which provokes the most vocal response from the crowd of the night, as he leads them in a rendition of A Town Called Malice. When Jackson takes over vocals, it’s spooky how similar he sounds to Paul Weller.
An encore of We Are The Sleepyheads and Get Me Away From Here signals the close of a performance which, if lacking the sort of adulation and camaraderie usually associated with the band’s shows, at least showed off what an utterly huge volume of brilliant work they now have to play with. The set was utterly unpredictable; packed with forgotten gems. Whatever the weather’s like, it always feels a little bit sunnier with this lot around.