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Belle and Sebastian at Merriweather: A Nice Day for a Sulk

July 15, 2013

SHORT LIST_Belle and SebastianTurns out Belle and Sebastian fans aren’t huge partiers. Who would have guessed that fans of a group adored for its bookish aesthetic and witty lyrics full of the small drama of school yards and awkward adolescence have a hard time letting loose. Friday’s show at Merriweather Post Pavilion felt like a Pitchfork-sponsored VH1 I <3 the ’90s special. Aging Gen-X’ers clad in plaid flannel shirts, some with kids in tow, were present for a trip down memory lane with a couple of the seminal indie acts from their youth. Though both Yo La Tengo and Belle & Sebastian impressed — the former with their hypnotic guitar drones, and the latter with their polished charm– neither managed to truly inspire any sort of uproarious rapture that the best performances bring about in an audience.

Grizzled veterans of the Indie Rock™ circuit, Yo La Tengo provided Merriweather with an instructive reminder of their prodigious talents.  Beginning their set with the placid side of their output, the New Jersey band slowed down to a beautiful crawl that Belle & Sebastian wouldn’t approach in their headlining slot.  The countrified rework of 1993’s “Big Day Coming,” in this instance sung by drummer Georgia Hubley, highlighted the casual beauty that Yo La Tengo seems to accomplish on a dare.

From then on it was a gradual invitation into Yo La Tengo’s little corner of the world of rock racket and conceptual guitar violence.  Both “Ohm” and “Before We Run” were outstanding demonstrations of tension without release before noisy closer “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” exploded in a maelstrom feedback as guitarist Ira Kaplan smacked and stomped on his detuned guitar, playing coy with both audience expectations and histrionic tropes of guitar heroics.

If Yo La Tengo’s set thrived on dynamic extremes and physicality, Belle and Sebastian seemed determined to entertain with mannered comedy and professionalism.

Though the songs often sounded excellent– “Lord Anthony” being a real improvement on its album incarnation– Belle and Sebastian’s performance recalled the awkward enthusiasm of high school thespians.  Throughout their set, disarmingly charming main person Stuart Murdoch strained to connect the band to their audience. Murdoch seemed to view every song as a struggle for crowd involvement, stretching to grab hold of our attention by borrowing mascara from a woman in the pit, acting out every line in the slow numbers, attempting to recruit an audience member to do spoken word during The Boy with the Arab Strap’s “Dirty Dream Number Two,” and running through the crowd in the pavilion in an attempt to get the crowd on their feet.

The majority of the audience leapt up at this violation of Belle and Sebastian’s reserved reputation, but it seemed as if Stuart Murdoch had seen Queen Rock Montreal and thought the key lesson was in Freddie Mercury’s gestures and not his hot pants.   Although many in the crowd seemed to know all the words to the songs, they remained entirely ignorant of having bodies, an issue Belle and Sebastian seemed particularly ill suited to address.

Every instance that Murdoch managed to build some energy at Merriweather, it disappeared into the void that is the remainder of Belle and Sebastian’s stage presence.  Though the band was sharp and even worked in some pleasing alterations in arrangements, they failed to engage with the crowd.  Their set still had highlights with a twangy version of “Piazza, New York Catcher” that you could line dance to and the Thin Lizzy pastiche “I’m a Cuckoo” being the best of the night’s survey the band’s career.

As with the deep cuts that peppered Belle & Sebastian’s setlist on Friday night, their live performance– though capable– was for diehards only.

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  • cbroome

    Having seen B&S on their last Merriweather show, I was struck by how little the set list changed in the past six years. Right down to the “Boy with the Arab Strap” late show appearance and tooling “Judy and the Dream of Horses” into a pro concert send-off rave.

  • Jen

    Did you miss the moment when there were 40 people on stage dancing with the band?

    In every way it was a perfect B&S show: Audience guest vocalists, stage dancers, and theatrics. If you have ever been to a B&S show before, you know that this is their thing, and it has been working for them for years. I had as amazing a time as I did the last time I saw them 7 years ago. I have absolutely no complaints.

    Also, this band has been going strong for 17 years…who should be surprised that their fan base might be aging and now wants to sit in a seat and quietly enjoy their favorite tunes instead of getting pushed and shoved by obnoxious college girls who won’t stop yelling about the tall guy blocking their view (speaking from personal experience here…).

  • DanMan

    This review is way off base. I was down in front in the pit, and the energy level was very high for an indie show. Also, by the end of the show I saw people crying and hugging each other. Great start to finish show. At this point isn’t every Belle and Sebastian fan a diehard? They’re indie legends for a reason.