Monday 5 February 2018

Belle and Sebastian: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

'Rollercoaster Ride - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To Belle and Sebastian Is Available By Clicking Here


I don't know about you, dear reader, but so far this book/website has seemed awfully studio-bound: yes there are the odd live albums dotted round in the discographies but a touring life was usually as important if not more so to our AAA artists. Even we can't go through every gig they ever played however, so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important, along with one particularly good one that summed up the band's setlist during their live peak (or one of them, anyway). Think of these as a sort of 'highlights' covering from first to (in some cases) last, to whet your appetite and to avoid ignoring a band's live work completely!
Belle and Sebastian aren't the most natural live act on the planet. Though it's been tidied up and tightened a lot in the past ten years most B and S fans still go to gigs expecting them to 'stay loose', with much in-joking, tuning up, random off the wall covers and audience karaoke participation. No two shows are ever alike, though not always in a Grateful Dead eclectic could-go-anywhere sense but more in a how-did-we-do-this-the-last-time? sense. Still, their audience almost always walk out having had a good time and the band, sweetly, still generally play small venues (or more recently small-ish festivals) rather than the arenas they could probably get away with. Would we really want them any other way? This is a band, after all, that only formed to make one record for one course project - nobody gave any thoughts to going on the road back when 'Tigermilk' was made in 1995 and it took nearly two years for the band to play any gigs at all, while they still haven't clocked up all that many (468 at my count) - less than any AAA band to have lasted the twenty years B and S have. There are still lots of highlights though including these five listing what they played when (at least when we know it!)
1) Where: Institute Of Contemporary Arts, London When: November 7th 1996 Why: First Gig Setlist: [30] Beautiful [1] Dog On Wheels [15] Seeing Other People [2] The State I Am In [45] This Is Just A Modern Rock Song [23] Judy And The Dream Of Horses
Belle and Sebastian's first concert took place just eleven days before the release of the first wow-I-can-actually-buy-this-in-a-shop-and-everything-album 'If You're Feeling Sinister. Curious Londoners, who were either lost, curious or unusually hip joined a bunch of loyal Scots on a ragged but memorable away day. The setlist is short (Belle and Sebastian's sets are never what you might call 'long', even now) but did its job, starting with one of Stuart's earliest scratchy demos, moving through 'Tigermilk' (the first time the 'extended' Belle and Sebastian had played any of it and the first time any of the band had played it since recording it) and moving onto the just written, just recorded 'Sinister' and then a preview of EP track 'This Is Just A Modern Rock Song'. The pattern had been set: low on rehearsal, high on charisma, Belle and Sebastian are more than Scottish student-tourists cashing in on a sudden flurry of fame: this is a band with their own unique style already and one to watch. As the band's publicist (yes, I'm surprised they have one too) Chris Stone commented 'It was one of those shows when you feel like history was being made'. Many in the know in music circles were already predicting that Belle and Sebastian would be huge and all they had to do was to play more prestigious shows like this one - instead the band 'retired' for about six months, refusing to do things the record industry way.
2) Where: West 54th Street, New York When: May 9th 1997 Why: The Turning Point? Setlist: [35] Is It Wicked Not To Care? [17] Like Dylan In The Movies [36] Ease Your Feet In The Sea [26] A Century Of Elvis [48] Slow Graffiti [38] Seymour Stein [21] Mayfly [24] Lazy Line Painter Jane [34] Sleep The Clock Around 'I'll Be Your Mirror' [44] Rollercoaster Ride [70] Loneliness Of The Middle Distance Runner
For any other British band a debut appearance in America would have been a mammoth colossal event - the door to international fame, fortune and glory. For Belle and Sebastian it was a little like pulling teeth and very nearly didn't happen. A first planned gig in New York was called off at the absolute last minute (after the support band had played their set) because Isobel was poorly (it wasn't lost to the music press that Isobel didn't actually play or sing that much in early band setlists, but was all part of an early B and S 'Robin Hood' mantra that either all of them would show or none of them would show). The second gig when the band did turn up featured a shambolic, under-rehearsed outfit who famously spent so long tuning up between songs that Stevie Jackson busked an entire rendition of Bob Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone' - not a short song and he sang it complete. The band also played an eccentric setlist which featured no less than five currently unreleased songs, hardly anything from well received second album 'If You're Feeling Sinister', Stuart David spent five minutes regaling the shocked audience with the comedy dialogue 'A Century Of Elvis' and the band played a one-off cover of The Velvet Underground song 'I'll Be Your Mirror' which the band never played again. The show was also kept deliberately short - partly because the band hadn't rehearsed that many songs and partly to keep the strain on Stuart's m.e. down to a minimum. The Ed Sullivan shows this wasn't and the re-action was hostile mixed with confusion: the music press, expecting the next great thing somehow recognised the next big thing but dressed up in a very different packaging to what they had been looking for. Most of them stayed away from Belle and Sebastian who by most rock and roll band's standards simply disappeared after this, while others called for the band to apologise. Which they did, in a Belle and Sebastian sort of a way. Stevie commented 'Right now we agree we're a shambles, but we could never be deliberately contemptuous of an audience', while indie music fanzine Chickfactor were one of the few to be supportive: 'It's born of perfectionism, not rudeness' they commented in one of their issues. They were right, but a music business brought up on people eager to work hard, on their terms, never quite understood it. This is the moment when Belle and Sebastian could have been huge and they decided they'd rather be tiny and live on their own terms. A sense from promoters that they're a 'difficult' band started here though and exists to this day.
3) Where: BAM Festival, Barcelona When: September 19th 1997 Why: First Festival Setlist: 'Tigermilk' [43] Simple Things [42] Chickfactor [36] Ease Your Feet In The Sea [34] Sleep The Clock Around [24] Lazy Line Painter Jane [45] This Is Just A Modern Rock Song [35] Is It Wicked Not To Care? [70] Loneliness Of The Middle Distance Runner [26] A Century Of Fakers
Given that Belle and Sebastian are, by and large, painfully shy, hate large crowds and had still only played seven gigs together suggests that Belle and Sebastian's first festival would prove to be a disaster. In fact it was a huge success and festivals have been the band's vehicle of choice ever since. Not many people at the BAM festival had heard of Belle and Sebastian when they took the stage somewhere near the bottom of the bill and even fewer in the Spanish crowd understood the poetic long-winded Murdoch prose. But there was something about this band connecting with this crowd that really took off and it turned out to be one of those really special events when band and audience are in total harmony. B and S still didn't do things the easy way: they started their setlist with an unreleased instrumental they barely ever played, stuck to the more obscure songs from their setlist and most of them came from their third album 'The Boy With The Arab Strap', rushed into the shops after this festival so fans could buy the songs...a full twelve months later!  Primal Scream were the other headliners, bur their more professional, less audience friendly set was blown off the stage by Belle and Sebastian's cute amateurism. More festivals will follow in Spain, Brazil and Argentina and - twice - in Glastonbury, England (where John Peel declared them his 'favourite' band of the festival in 2002 after admitting he'd never really heard of them!)  To this day Belle and Sebastian have a much higher profile with Spanish speaking audiences (including Latin America) than they do with English or even Scottish speaking ones, with everyone in the audience it seems telling everyone they met 'look out for this band...' when they got home. 
4) Where: Bowlie Weekender, Camber Sands, UK When: April 23rd-25th 1999 Why: B and S' Own Festival! Setlist: [48] Slow Graffiti [15] Seeing Other People [1] Dog On Wheels [54] The Wrong Girl [28] A Century Of Fakers [46] I Know Where The Summer Goes [62] Winter Wooskie [43] Simple Things [20] If You're Feeling Sinister 'Paper Boat' [41] The Boy With The Arab Strap [27] Photo Jenny 'Landslide' [24] Lazy Line Painter Jane 'The Kids Are Alright'
Belle and Sebastian weren't exactly famous when they decided what the musical world needed was a three-day festival curated by them (and featuring only their friends, influences and label-mates). Then again Pontin's Holiday Camp wasn't an obvious place to host a free-flowing music festival either. Nor was naming the festival after an unfashionable 'bowl' haircut, of the sort linked with geeks and nerds. Somehow though it worked, with Belle and Sebastian free to be 'themselves' for perhaps the first time on a live stage and by presenting a musical festival that wasn't too big or too pretentious. Belle and Sebastian have always had an unusual relationship with their fans and the chance to see so many of them in the audience must have been a strange feeling indeed after years of playing town-halls and small clubs (in actual fact Belle and Sebastian had still played less than 20 gigs together by this stage, so weren't exactly veterans!) The music press kinda got it too, enjoying the different kind of atmosphere on show and the friendly vibe from stage that B and S didn't always show at their bigger gigs (they were especially astonished when the band turned in an 'unofficial' first set, standing out in the rain with the crowd, singing every unplugged song they could think of!) The result was a fun show, repeated a second time in 2010 when the crowds were somewhat bigger!
5) Where: Royal Albert Hall, London When: June 29th 2001 Why: Biggest Home Gig? Setlist: [29] Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie [59] There's Too Much Love [65] The Magic Of A Kind Word [11] My Wandering Days Are Over [1] Dog On Wheels [68] Jonathan David  [53] Don't Leave The Light On Baby [50] The Model [67] My Girl's Got Miraculous Technique 'The Final Countdown' [2] The State I Am In [43] Simple Things
The last high profile B and S gig in London, at The Who's old home in Shepherd's Bush, had been a disaster. The band turned up hours late to catcalls and a heckler shouting 'you better be effing great!' who then debated with half the audience noisily why even a band as talented and unique as Belle and Sebastian shouldn't keep their fans waiting for this long. Four years later, though, everything is different: the band might not be 'faultless to a tee' as they put it in their second song, but they're pretty close and play one of their tightest and most professional gigs. By now the band have played another 30 odd gigs, coalesced as a band with a lot of tight rockers (this was in the era when it was cool to kick B and S for being 'fey' - the naysayers must have never been to this gig which rocks with a passion) and they also play a full 100 minutes in their set, about double what they had been (though you never fully recover from m.e. Stuart's was close to being under control at this stage so could play for longer - especially left in a singing rather than playing role for most of the set). Somehow, though, Belle and Sebastian still managed to make the big and scary Victorian building feel like just another B and S gig, as if the band were playing down their local club and there are some very B and S moments no other band would have delivered at such a prestigious gig - after all, who else would have chosen this moment for a one-off performance of not-that-well-known 'Europe' cover 'The Final Countdown'? Or opened with an obscure EP B-side? Or played two songs in 'The Magic Of A Kind Word' and 'My Girl's Got Miraculous Technique' that the band will only ever release on a set of BBC sessions?!? One of the last gigs played with Isobel still in the group (who gets a starring role on more songs than normal in this period), this is the 'first' Belle and Sebastian at a peak, playing the pop game this time around but doing things on their terms still this time around.


Sometimes when artists pick up that musical baton they pay tribute to their heroes by covering their favourite songs. Here are three covers that we consider to be amongst the very best out of the ones we've heard (and no we haven't heard them all - do you know how many AAA albums out there are out there even without adding cover songs as well?!) Belle and Sebastian songs are, by their very nature, hard for another band to record. You're either going to sound just like the original or you're going to change things around so much that the quirk and feel of the original is going to lost - these aren't a 'one size fits all' band like, say, Wings. Perhaps realizing this there aren't actually that many Belle and Sebastian covers out there - maybe four to the best of my knowledge and only two you can actually buy in shops- so rather than a 'top three' this time round you're getting what's more like an 'only three!'
1) Rasputina [18] "Fox In The Snow" ('My Fever Broke' EP 2002)
Ouch! You wait all those years for the world's first Belle and Sebastian cover and when we get it, it makes your ears bleed! Rasputina has a lot of familiar ground going for them: they're a democracy dominated by low-key singer/writer Melora Creager and their sensitive singer-songwriter material has a distinctive classical vibe (Melora is herself a cellist of some talent). Many of their recordings are excellent - alas this one is pretty awful all the way through. The original 'Fox In The Snow' is a haunting song about hopelessness, of wondering why people continue and survive when their odds of happiness are nil and wondering when they'll learn to take 'a holiday'. In many ways it's Stuart Murdoch's most personal song, his perfectionism played out through a metaphor of his favourite animal lost and cut-off from his natural habitat by a nasty bout of cold Winter. This version sounds like a chicken being plucked with a cello bow while Melora sings in an octave at least seven too high for her natural range. Well, what do I know anyway? It's just something you read in a book tonight.
2) Mates Of State [34] "Sleep The Clock Around" ('Crushes: The Covers Mix Tape' 2010)
By contrast I know absolutely zero about American husband-and-wife team Masters of State and yet from this cover alone I'm a fan for life. The original of this song is small, humble, desperate and wonderfully strange. The cover of this song is large, confident, taut and yet still somehow wonderfully strange. The band keep the pinging electric sounds of the original synthesiser bleeps intact but they also add flutes and a brass fadeout that add a real folkie/soulful vibe to the track. The vocals sound like a posh English version of Kraftwerk, with lots of robotic voices intoning rather than singing. The original's slight sense of naughty hope hidden within all the sadness it totally reversed: this is a song that's mostly joyous and carefree, with just a slight hint of cognitive dissonance and melancholy. And oh the production: this is what Trevor Horn came close to doing with 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress', channelling Belle and Sebastian's eccentricity through arrangements instead of doing what most producers get wrong and trying to tidy up their natural mess. Though the album itself sadly died a death (this is the best thing on it, but the rest is pretty decent too) this song does appear the film soundtrack 'The Art Of Getting By'.
3) Reavsey [13] "Mary Jo" (Youtube)
There is not third official Belle and Sebastian song, so instead this is the best of the (many) simple yet enthusiastic B and S covers out there on Youtube. Full marks for the rare choice song and the 1980s punk vibe that sounds not unlike a 'Felt' or 'Orange Juice' cover of a Belle and Sebastian song (albeit played unplugged style), something that seems rather apt. Even pared back to the basics, what was on the record one of the most elaborate and 'posh' of all B and S recordings sounds mighty impressive.

Other Belle and Sebastian related madness from this website you might be interested in reading: 

A Now Complete Link Of Belle and Sebastian Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:
‘Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Peasant’ (2001)
'Storytelling' (2002)

'Push Barman To Open Old Wounds' (EP compilation 2003)

'Dear Catastrophe Waitress' (2004)
'The Life Pursuit' (2006)

'Write About Love' (2010)
'God Help The Girl' (Stuart Murdoch Film) (2014)
Girls In Peace Time Just Want To Dance (2015)

Belle and Sebastian: Existing TV Clips
Belle and Sebastian: 12 Unreleased Songs
Belle and Sebastian: Non-Album Songs
Belle and Sebastian: Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums
Essay: B and S Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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