Belle and Sebastian & LCO: The Guardian review ★★★★

Tuesday 7 December 2010
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Dave Simpson
Tuesday 7 December 2010

Belle and Sebastian used to play so quietly that a rustling crisp packet could be louder than the band, perhaps because they wished to avoid the aural havoc that cranked-up rock PA systems could wreak on their painstaking creations. How they must have fantasised about gigs like this. Augmenting the band’s usual violin, trumpet and recorder combination, the London Contemporary Orchestra are on hand to give their songs the kind of backing they deserve, while the soundsystem is so clear you can hear singer Stuart Murdoch’s titters even with everything at hefty volume.

The Glasgow combo have been called “the Smiths for the generation that came after Morrissey and Marr”. However, the lush orchestral backing underlines how much their songs are informed by older, classic pop: the mix of guitar twangs, shuffling grooves, parping brass and sumptuous strings sounding like a glorious mix of Bob Dylan, Donovan, the Velvet Underground, Abba, Burt Bacharach and Motown, with a bit of Mozart.

Murdoch, meanwhile, is modern pop’s answer to Philip Larkin. Alternately pithy and profound, he sings of the rubbishness of life but the even greater rubbishness of dying, mixing sensitivity with sauce. The Fox in the Snow (restored to the set for climatic reasons) is a straightforwardly emotional song about a creature struggling to feed itself in the cold. But if their fey, shrinking-violet reputation ever was justified, it should have surely been demolished by the likes of If You’re Feeling Sinister, which finds the dapper, scarf-wearing Scotsman singing of a girl into S&M and Bible studies, who finds her interests taken advantage of when “the vicar, or whatever, took her to one side and gave her confirmation”.

A wonderful gig sees the once archetypal indie cool band unexpectedly become all-round entertainers, as classical pop nestles alongside comedy, theatre and audience participation. Murdoch runs around the crowd and gets a lady in the audience to apply mascara to his face, mid-song, to illustrate a lyric. Meanwhile, the absorbing set rollercoasts from new classic I Didn’t See It Coming to the perennial The Boy with the Arab Strap, a sublime anthem referencing a sexual device for maintaining an erection. As the orchestra claps along, Murdoch invites crowd members to dance on stage and gives each a medal reading, “I made it with Belle and Sebastian.” With perfect comic timing, he adds, “Not in a rude way, you understand.”

Click here to listen to Belle and Sebastian talking to Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie about the LCO on BBC Radio 2 (available for 7 days).

Photo: © Tommy Jackson/Redferns

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