This year’s much-used Ottawa Bluesfest full fest passes featuring their mascot, Leadbelly. He waved at me on Day One. I think he looks like a blue version of the Just For Laughs gremlin.
Ticket Price: $19.50 (as part of 10-day pass)
I first heard of Belle & Sebastian shortly after their mid-‘90s emergence but didn’t get to actually hear them until just after the turn of this century. A younger friend of ours from that time was over one night when Donovan came on a CD compilation that we were listening to. “Who is this?,” he asked. “It sounds like Belle & Sebastian.”
Explaining that while I knew of them, I hadn’t yet been able to check them out, although a few friends who knew me and my tastes had assured me that the Scottish group would be my cup of rosy. In response, he shortly thereafter made me a B&S CD. Well, shiver me timbers, upon spinning it the first time, Stuart Murdoch and his collective were indeed sometimes redolent of the Hurdy Gurdy Man.
That may be one prism through which to view the B&S sound, but for those unaccustomed to the charms of the pride of Glasgow I usually tend to describe them as being like a more chamber pop version of The Smiths as fronted by Donovan. But even that doesn’t quite cut it.
Belle & Sebastian nakedly take many cues from a variety of past points. Main songwriter and group originator Murdoch wrote in “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” from their second album If You’re Feeling Sinister, “Nobody writes them like they used to / So it might as well be me.”
But it’s The Smiths who are almost always the first name dropped as a reference point, a claim not without merit. They share the 1980s’ Mancunian wonders’ clever wordsmithing, an atypical rock band frontman, a fascination with the more popwise aspects of 1960s culture, chiming melodicism, melancholy observations enlivened with dark and unexpected humour, bookish temperaments, and a series of single-colour-saturated sleeves projecting a very particular, consistent aesthetic, with form and content in self-conscious synch.
But ultimately it’s far too reductive to stop there.
Morrissey, Marr, and co. are simply one influential ingredient in the mix. I can certainly also hear fellow Scots the Incredible String Band as well as ye olde scamp, Donovan, plus Simon & Garfunkel and a lot of ‘60s folk rock in general. But around that influence table also sits The Velvets, Dylan, T. Rex, 1980s indie jangle-pop (especially the sound of Glasgow’s Postcard Records), Northern Soul, and the whole lineage of bent, observational songwriters and entities from the British Isles chronicling the peculiarities, eccentricities, and vestiges of day-to-day UK life (see also: The Kinks, Ian Dury, Madness, the aforementioned Smiths, Blur, Pulp, etc.). Last but not least, there’s Bacharach/David and lush, easy ‘60s and sunshine pop. (The band has identified The Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina” as a blueprint for the B&S sound.)
Belle & Sebastian onstage at Ottawa Bluesfest 2013. (All concert photos by Fast & Bulbous.)
Then there’s Murdoch’s narrator-style singing stance, almost Henry James-esque in its one-step-removed tonal consistency that may be dispassionate on the surface and in application, but warmly empathetic just underneath.
All these building blocks are there, yet the resulting band sound singularly identifiable in sound and personality, merged with insightful, literate lyrics. As Murdoch has said, “It’s about storytelling and about capturing somebody’s attention and keeping it.”
They’ve also been fervently DIY in how they’ve gone about things, often referencing a punk rock ethos and ideology even if their actual music and sound — subtle and unerringly melodic — is quite removed from anything audibly punk.
Far from it.
In fact, these demure, canarous elements of B&S — almost provocatively twee and precious — can make them a polarizing presence, creating passionate detractors in certain circles. There’s of course that famous scene in High Fidelity when Jack Black’s hectoring record store dude character rips B&S off the store sound system in a peak of testosterone-threatened rage.
It also brings to mind for me a conversation from a few years back with a terrific young lady who was part of my staff (funny how I tend to hire lots of tuneheads, innit?) I thought she’d be a shoo-in for B&S fan status — a cardigan wearing, somewhat shy enthusiast of a lot of the slightly miserable’n’chiming Brit groups — until I mentioned them one day. “I hate Belle & Sebastian!,” she pointedly responded. When I expressed genuine shock, figuring that they would be of a piece of so many other of groups she loved, even she admitted “I know what you mean, and I can see why that would make sense and know many who love them … but I just hate them.” Perhaps she didn’t want to be stereotyped.
Murdoch himself must have known — or planned — from the start that B&S would rub people as a love ‘em or leave ‘em proposition for potential listeners. As he goes on to write in “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” “Think of it this way / You could either be successful or be us / With our winning smiles, and us / With our catchy tunes and words / Now we’re photogenic / You know, we don’t stand a chance.”
As it turned out, they did indeed stand a chance and then some, gradually building an international following over the past two decades, with their most recent — 2010’s Write About Love — even bringing the group into the U.S. Top 20 for the first time. (Bizarrely, I recently heard a track from the album playing at a Loblaws while was grocery shopping. During that same outing, the store also piped in the Talking Heads, PJ Harvey, and Elvis Costello. It’s sad when you hear better music at the supermarket than on the radio.)
For me, receiving that compilation CD years ago started me on my path to B&S devotion, as I soon became intimate with their entire catalogue and followed all output since. And a fairly peerless catalogue it is: since the first small run of vinyl copies of their fully-formed-on-arrival debut, Tigermilk, ran off the presses in 1996, they have so far avoided doing what is usually inevitable for acts pushing past seventeen years and after eight albums: they have yet to make a bad one (ok, granted the Storytelling soundtrack is a bit iffy, but I guess I see that as apart from their main catalogue). Concurrently, they’ve issued a series of also-excellent EPs and non-LP singles, eventually compiled together in the two-disc comp, Push Barman To Open Old Wounds, and their newly issued second B-sides’n’ephemera retrospective, The Third Eye Centre.
While I don’t think there’s a dud in the non-soundtrack bunch, I’m with the core of B&S fandom in having a particular fondness for their second disc, If You’re Feeling Sinister. Initially, however, Belle and Sebastian (taking their name from a French children’s book and TV series) weren’t even meant to be an actual band but rather an outlet for a clutch of songs Murdoch had written in his twenties while incapacitated at home, suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Push Barman To Open Old Wounds collects their extensive EP and non-LP single releases up until 2001. The newly released The Third Eye Centre collects odds and ends since then.
While I had long assumed a song like ‘The Stars of Track and Field” to have a strongly ironic streak, turns out it’s not the case. In a recent documentary on Sinister that’s part of a Pitchfork series highlighting classic indie albums, the athletic Murdoch notes that “These songs, they’re absolutely about desire. They’re about desiring the subject of the song but also desiring to be the person who the song is about. To be partaking in their activities, to be part of their life because, again, the whole backdrop is that I’d been unwell for so long that, for instance, an athlete, a star of track and field, is the kind of person who would simply be beautiful to me, to aspire to that kind of athleticism and activity.” He had always liked “running and I always did but it was something that was taken away from me. I’d run a marathon just before I started to become unwell, so I’d look back on that life and it was like a fantasy to me.”
Indeed, he discusses in the Pitchfork special how the years in his twenties spent fighting and dealing with CFS inspired many of those early songs. “I always wanted to write about just normal people doing normal things because I was not normal. I was out of the game. So it was very attractive to me what normal people were doing. I would watch the people working. I’d watch the people coming in and out. I’d wonder where they’d come from, what they were going to, whether they were parts of families or relationships, if they were working, which was all what I didn’t have, and I would write about them.”
Post-Sinister, his health returned and the assembled 7-8 person collective edged closer to democracy status with other members contributing songs and lead vocals. Yet, ultimately, Murdoch reigns as a sort of benevolent dictator for the crew.
Logo on the Belle & Sebastian t-shirt I picked up at the gig. (Photo by VA.)
For this extended weekend of live shows, my nephew came up from London. (Making his first appearance in this blog, I will refer to him via the name of his radio show, Fast & Bulbous.) He was here to take in Paul McCartney, the Specials, and tonight’s B&S performance, this being his second B&S experience having seen them at Coachella a few years back. F&B and me staked out a sweet spot right up front for the show early on, hanging out while able to hear Neko Case doing a great job over on the Bell stage, while anticipatory fans incrementally swelled around us.
This being the Glaswegians’ Ottawa debut, the large crowd present were wildly enthusiastic in the face of finally getting to see the crew live, never letting the energy flag throughout. Positions were assumed by artists and audience sharply at 8pm, during the “beautiful summer sunset time” as Stuart Murdoch later noted. All but their fearless leader boarded the stage as they launched into their space age instrumental, “Judy Is A Dickslap,” featuring a cross-legged Sarah Martin rocking the Stylophone — you know, there really aren’t enough Stylophones in concert these days.
Murdoch finally emerged mid-tune to the euphoric fans’ delight, wearing shades and a jacket on this punishingly hot night. The jacket didn’t last long, though, but the shades remained as an ongoing necessity owing to the sun’s acting as a relentless, natural spotlight. “I hope you don’t mind us keeping our specs on,” he reasoned to the throngs following the second-up “I’m A Cuckoo,” complete with some mirthful air guitar and clenched teeth when delivering the line about listening “to Thin Lizzy-o.”
Once the sun had stopped pulverizing the stage, off went the sunglasses and on came a fedora, although the heat was unrelenting throughout. Regardless, his joie de vivre matched that of the adoring audience from start to finish.
Murdoch turned out to be a far more exuberant front man that I’d been expecting: demonstrative and full of cheeky charm. “I’m kind of in a dancing mood,” he announced without much irony amid flailing arms and footwork, later explaining that he was “dancing a bit camp” to get us all worked up and excited.
He’s also most loquacious. Between-song intervals were peppered with stories ranging from the one about his mosquito bite the “size of a Canadian dollar” (“I’m Scottish so I’m fresh meat”) that he demurred showing us as it’s “in a private place,” to naming Ottawa the friendliest city in Canada owing to a bus driver allowing him to board even though he didn’t have the fare. Turns out he lost track of time while exploring the city centre and needed to get his ass in gear and over to Bluesfest in short order. (Bus Driver: “Well then, get on as that’s where they’re all going too — but just this once!”).
One Canadian Dollar = Stuart Murdoch’s Mosquito Bite
Best of all was his story about being accosted on his journey from the bus stop to the festival’s grounds, the LeBreton Flats, by a troupe of folks who were handing out free promotional mini-tubs of hummus in tandem with bags of tortilla chips for dipping. “Did anyone get any free hummus coming in?” (apparently, hummus is pronounced “hoo-miss” in Glasgow.) “I guess this is the free hummus festival” he observed before lamenting that, unlike lucky others, he got nothing on the side to dip in the chick pea treat. Not a moment later, a bag of Doritos came flying on to the stage from the audience. Clutching the thoughtful gifty, a grinning Murdoch gave an amused thanks, saving them for an after show treat.
And what a show it was. While he’s always been the lynchpin, the music has always been down to the interplay within this intuitive, nimble collective, tonight numbering twelve with the inclusion of a string quartet. Aside from that foursome and drummer Richard Colburn, everyone else on the stage played musical chairs throughout via an array of instruments, with much swapping from song to song among a variety of guitar, woodwind, brass, keyboard, percussive, and classical instruments, depending on what the tune and its arrangement necessitated.
The setlist was manna for their fanbase. Early on, Murdoch announced that they would be performing selections cherry-picked from their entire output, and true to his word they were. The promised range stretched back to Tigermilk’s “Expecations” and included my two favourite songs from their repertoire: “Like Dylan in the Movies” and the T. Rex-y “The Boy With the Arab Strap.” The former was preceded by Murdoch announcing “This is an older song for perhaps older people in the audience — people like me. But if the youngsters know it, power to you: you’re cool!,” while he invited up a cache of frugging audience members to bounce around the stage to the latter.
My two favourite B&S songs: “Like Dylan in the Movies” (about Murdoch being stalked and chased through Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park) at Bluesfest (from olliefuck on YouTube).
If I had to pick a personal musical highlight, it would have been the gently countrified take on “Piazza, New York Catcher,” a song that was recorded as an acoustic solo piece for Dear Catastrophe Waitress but shimmers in an equally appealing way with this nimble, full-band arrangement. Murdoch helmed the bass while Sarah & a touring member sang lead on their 2000 UK hit and Northern Soul pastiche, “Legal Man,” while Lady Stylophone also took centre stage during Write About Love’s “I Didn’t See It Coming.” Meanwhile, “Funny Little Frog” got one of the best lead-ins of the evening, with Murdoch announcing that the band was about to do “one of our many songs with animals in the title,” smirking that “we try to embrace the entire animal kingdom” via this amphibian-mentioning track.
The concluder and encore numbers harkened back to If You’re Feeling Sinister once more in the form of crowd pleasers “Judy and the Dream of Horses” and “Get Me Out of Here, I’m Dying,” after which it was sadly time for them to ixnay the stage.
It was a magnificent seventy-five minutes but it could have gone on for hours for me. Both Bulbous and I felt that the many of each of our hoped-for numbers were aired, and wonderfully so: it was a perfect selection of songs. I really can’t think of one negative thing to say about the band’s performance. I certainly truly hope this won’t be my one and only time taking them in live.
Belle & Sebastian not only rule the school, they ruled the festival this year in my opinion. It was also one of the very best shows I’ve ever seen in all my years of attending Bluesfest.
Anytime you’re ready lads and lassies, let’s do it again.
Next On Stage –> My Bluesfest recaps hit a snag when a close-to-finished iteration almost went walkies with a laptop crash. But, just like the Rob Ford video, it has recently been retrieved from the hard drive (merci, Cublet). So, it’s on its way soon, although as a three-part-er … wanted to compact it down to two, but just too long.
So, to recap … After a dismal 2012, Ottawa Bluesfest came roaring back with possibly the best overall lineup in its history. I will be recapping the many acts I took in with a three-parter. Stay tuned for a bevy of animal costumes, mutli-faced vocalists, the massed sound of meowing cats, inflatable alligators, Coventry curmudgeons, potential Mrs. Naugatuck sightings — or was it Mrs. Slocombe or Elsa Lanchester? — and more.
178c. Declare Independence: Ottawa Bluesfest 2013 (Pt. 2) with Björk, B.B. King, Phosphorescent, Austra, Stars, and more, July 13-14, LeBreton Flats, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
© 2013 VariousArtists