Belle and Sebastian… Finally!

Belle and Sebastian + Teenage Fanclub – Williamsburg Waterfont – September 30th

The lights all twirled in unison well before the show began, sending waves of delight and anxiety throughout the building crowd. “Is that lightning?” Someone asked nervously. “Oh.. no. Good.”

All day long, there was a flurry of activity on sites like Brooklyn Vegan and, as people speculated about the likelihood of the show going on as planned. Rain is one thing, but lightning? I didn’t want to see a repeat of the Modest Mouse show at the waterfront last July – especially not with Belle and Sebastian. (It’s not as if they’re domestic and tour often, you know? Rescheduling could get messy.)

Teenage Fanclub (Photo Amanda Hatfield)

By the time Teenage Fanclub began to play, there was a gray, foggy haze hanging over Manhattan, but still no rain. “It’s a little windy up here tonight,” joked guitarist/vocalist Norman Blake as the tarps on stage covering Belle and Sebastian’s instruments billowed. The crowd erupted in nervous laughter.

With an extra album and an additional seven years to their name, Teenage Fanclub may have been at it longer than Belle & Sebastian, but they seemed more than happy to be billed as the openers. At one point, Blake jokingly told people to stick around after their set (as if we needed convincing), saying, “There’s another band in just a little while. They’re called Belle and Sebastian…?”).

Throughout their set, Blake offered a number of helpful little explanations and interjections about their music – all in a delightful Scottish accent. “I have a glockenspiel,” he announced excitedly before one song. He held up the instrument, as if a teacher before a class of eager students. Then later, he continued with the lesson, saying, “This song is called “When I Still Have Thee. ‘Thee’ is an old word.”

With their three-part harmonies and pleasant, well-rehearsed music, Teenage Fanclub succeeded in putting on an enjoyable set and priming the audience for the performance yet to come.

As the crew readied the stage for Belle and Sebastian’s set, the excitement in the audience mounted – especially when the two large replicas of the artwork for the new album were unveiled.

Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian (Photo by Amanda Hatfield)

Soon, front man Stuart Murdoch walked on stage and saluted the crowd. Belle and Sebastian kicked off the evening with a new song from their upcoming album, which prominently features Sarah Martin on vocals. Murdoch took advantage of Sarah’s singing and began to dance. “Oh, what a great job,” he said with a sigh after the applause from the first song had died down. They followed the unfamiliar song with a round of classics to the delight of the crowd.

A few times over the course of the evening, the stage lights fell on what appeared to be rain at the back of the stage, but luckily the mysterious drops were just a false alarm. Somehow the weather held out.

After a few songs, Murdoch addressed the audience and commented on the view of the Manhattan skyline. [listen to clip]

The evening was punctuated by a number of charming moments, which seems only fitting for a band that basically defines the word ‘twee.’ As if proving this point, Murdoch offered another long aside to the crowd. “We committed a faux pas tonight. We all realized… Stevie, show.” Guitarist Stevie Jackson unbuttoned his jacket to reveal a horizontally-striped shirt. Murdoch unzipped his own to reveal the same. He gestured over at Sarah Martin’s shirt – another duplicate, this time in long sleeves. “I mean for God’s sake,” he continued. “We’ve been at this for 15 years. I know it’s my fault for jumping on the bandwagon. For being bandwagon-esque.”

Belle and Sebastian (Photo by Amanda Hatfield)

Belle and Sebastian is one of those bands that sort of sneaks up on you. Before you know it, you own five of their albums, and their music is such that even if you haven’t heard it recently, you are instantly transported back in time at the sound of Stuart Murdoch’s voice or the first notes of a catchy trumpet solo.

The excitement was contagious. Take a listen to the enthusiasm of the crowd (song clip: “Step Into My Office, Baby”):

Much of the set list featured older, more popular songs (five from Dear Catastrophe Waitress and four from If You’re Feeling Sinister), but the band also pulled out a couple of “B sides” and four new songs. As if sensing that the audience might be disappointed at not knowing the words to the new material, Jackson punched up one of the new songs (“I’m Not Living in the Real World”) by leading the audience in a sing-a-long and offering plenty of praise along the way. “That’s incredibly beautiful actually,” he said proudly after a quick practice round.

Though largely unfamiliar, the new material sounded great. “Write About Love,” the title track has everything you know and love about Belle and Sebastian: call and response male/female vocals and buoyant melodies. For some songs, up to six people  contributed on strings. Then, of course, there were delightful appearances by the trumpet, melodica, French horn, flute, recorders, and much more.

Take a listen to “Write About Love”

As if merely being present wasn’t a treat enough for a band who hasn’t toured the States in four years, Murdoch continuously lavished the audience with gifts. Before “Lord Anthony” (which tells the story of a boy who doesn’t fit in and is advised to ‘start kicking a football), he heaved six toy footballs to the children in the crowd because as he said, “It gets sort of boring when you’re a kid.” Each of the gifts was signed by the entire band.

Near the conclusion of their set, Murdoch turned to the audience with a request. “We need people who can clap.” He hand picked seven people to crowd around a microphone on stage and clap along to “There’s Too Much Love” while he himself joyfully danced around the stage. But just when they thought their formal clapping responsibilities had ended, he turned to them, saying, “You ain’t done yet” and encouraged them to dance around to the next song. When they heard what it was (“The Boy with the Arab Strap”), they were all happy to oblige. After this whimsical interlude, Murdoch proceeded to administer medals to all but one enthusiastic participant. “We’ll send yours,” he joked to the disappointed but good humored medal-less volunteer. Then he hugged them each and sent them on their way.

“Well listen folks. It’s nearly time for us to go,” Murdoch said after a few more songs. “It’s been a blast. I’m so glad we got a chance to do it.” They concluded the bulk of their set with two particularly upbeat songs, the last of which ironically featured the line, “Everybody is happy, they are glad that they came.”

Having started their set earlier than scheduled, the band took advantage of the extra time and concluded the show with a 2-song encore before turning the ecstatic (and still dry) crowd loose.

I’m not sure yet if it was the show of the year, but it’s certainly a contender. Far from losing my attention as the set wore on, I found myself more and more enchanted by their selections and fun stage antics. I mean geeze. Just look at the last 7 songs of that set list. Gold.

Teenage Fanclub Set list
Sometimes I Don’t Need to Believe in Anything
Baby Lee
About You
I Need Direction
I Don’t Want Control of You
Don’t Look Back
Your Love is the Place Where I Come From
When I Still Have Thee
Sparky’s Dream
The Concept

Belle and Sebastian Set list (asterisks indicate new songs)
*I Didn’t See It Coming
I’m a Cuckoo
Step Into My Office, Baby
Like Dylan in the Movies
*I’m Not Living in the Real World
Piazza, New York Catcher
*I Want the World to Stop
Lord Anthony
Sukie in the Graveyard
We Rule the School
Another Sunny Day
The Loneliness of a Middle-Distance Runner
*Write About Love
There’s Too Much Love
Boy with the Arab Strap
If You Find Yourself Caught in Love
Judy and the Dream of Horses
Sleep the Clock Around

Me and the Major
Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying

All photos courtesy of Amanda Hatfield.


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"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."

- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being


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