Belly’s website bio reads as a refreshingly frank account of why they disbanded so abruptly. Quite simply, their sophomore effort, King (1996), didn’t sell enough copies. So, with very little fuss, Tanya Donelly put the band she had formed just five short years before to bed. At the time, Donelly said of the split: “King was a reaction to the bright shininess of Star and we weren’t surprised when it didn’t sell. I regret not making another Belly album, but at the time I thought, ‘Screw it, I’m outta here’.”
That pragmatism and lack of sentimentality are just a couple of examples of their many charms, and here they pretty much just shut up and play the hits. And what is striking about the extensive setlist they play to a sweaty, packed audience at the Forum is just how many they have – even if they’re not exactly ‘hits’. But, hearing them bash out exceptional slices of alt-rock and jangled, dream-pop perfection, you can’t help but ponder what might – or, more accurately, should – have been.
Belly only released two long players in their lifetime, and yet they manage a 20 song setlist without a duff track, many of these from the oft-maligned King. Seal My Fate is played out with blistering effervescence, while the bluesy lilt of Red charms, Super-Connected lifts the audience an inch or so skyward, and The Bees is oh so pretty.
Of course it’s not enough just to have great tunes in a live situation, and again Belly don’t disappoint. Their live poise as a band that have had a casual 20 year break is impressive. Equally, it’s heartening to see a group that are so clearly relishing being back in the saddle, even if the enthusiastic reaction of fans does seem to surprise them. Donelly has remarked that when the tour went on sale and tickets were flowing well she wondered if people confused the band with the Canadian rapper of the same name, but she only has to walk onstage to be reassured of the affection her band garners. It’s with relief she tells us, “You just took my nerves away”.
Bassist Gail Greenwood is also a delight to watch, having lost none of her wild swagger in the intervening decades. She attacks each track with legs spread, hair all-a-frenzy and with utter joy and an energy that belies her quips about beta blockers and the like. It’s an energy required of songs with a sunny disposition, yet darkly skewed lyrics, and it lifts the slower tracks from outright traditional balladry. EP numbers like the luminescent Spaceman benefit from Donelly’s raspily honeyed vocals, undiminished by time, and complimented by Greenwood’s barely contained fire. And the words are an apt nod to a steamy room of hot bodies: “I can see the heat pour off of me/I can see it burns you too, brother”.
One of the most welcome omissions from the show is any sense of mawkish nostalgia. There’s no doubt both the crowd and the band are savouring reminiscences of more youthful times, but Belly feel too present and vital for a mere retread of past glories. These songs exist here and now, are meaningful in the present, and don’t just serve as memory prods. And the band are very much invested in the group as a going concern. When they made the announcement of their reformation they revealed they were working on new music, and true to their word they air a couple of tracks this evening. It’s difficult to make a judgement on first listen, but both sound really strong and segue effortlessly into the band’s canon.
Of course they do play the track they’re probably most well known for, Feed The Tree, and it’s wonderful, but it comes relatively early in the set. They resist dusting it off for the encore as one might expect: that slot is reserved for Stay from their debut. It couldn’t be a more fitting way to sign off, with the crowd’s hands held high, and the line, “It’s not time for me to go/stay”, reverberating poignantly in the moment. Belly were criminally undervalued the first time around, but their return is a wonderful, unexpected gift, with no need for regrets. In a word, delicious.