Published Jun 29, 2018Belle and Sebastian have never really been cool and they never will be. When their music was referenced in High Fidelity, it was to be ridiculed by Jack Black's character as "old sad bastard music" — and defended by John Cusack's as "something I can ignore." Their delicate sincerity and intellectualism have endeared them to sensitive bookish types, but continually repelled them from the mainstream. So, it was with the assumption that I was in for some low-key acoustic strumming that I opted to grab a faded sweater instead of my last-resort bottle of whiskey as I headed to the Vogue Theatre.
Turns out maybe I should have brought the whiskey.
When I got to the theatre, the show was already two things I didn't expect: loud and hot. Openers Japanese Breakfast could be heard launching into their summer slack-wave hit "Road Head," and the atmosphere was festive as frontwoman Michelle Zauner literally threw herself into the music, taking actual running leaps. Her performance managed to fill a daunting room; she delivered hilarious one-liners in the lulls between songs (admitting she'd gotten into Belle and Sebastian's castoff "luxury alcohol"), and proved that Japanese Breakfast will soon be packing venues this size themselves.
Belle and Sebastian burst onto the stage with "Na-na-nas" and handclaps, a far cry from the sick-bed folk music that defined them 20 years ago. It's been to some fans' dismay that Belle and Sebastian have spent the past 15-ish years slowly pushing up the dimmer on their music, morphing from sad bastards into what some people see as pod people of cheeriness. Their lispy folk ballads have morphed into lispy discofied pop, a happy change for those who want to dance, though some sense of intimacy has been diminished in the process.
The band pleased the crowd by playing a broad selection of songs from throughout their career, performing only a few select tracks from their lukewarm new trio of EPs, How to Solve Our Human Problems (Parts 1-3). Older songs like "She's Losing It," from their debut Tigermilk, were beefed up with group vocals and auxiliary percussion, pulling them into the band's current, more grandiose sensibility and offering them up like confections dipped in sugar.
Belle and Sebastian's current joyous incarnation does offers its own unique rewards, including the muppet-like dancing of frontman Stuart Murdoch. Seeing him undulate between tambourine hits was pleasantly surreal, considering this is a band whose early albums topped out at "Pachelbel's Canon" energy levels. I still wouldn't call Belle and Sebastian cool, but they've become the thing we should all hope to be instead: empowered.
The show's best moments were still the rare ones when it was just Murdoch and his guitar, his voice that same pure, defenseless thing that once made being bullied feel like a mark of significance. Looking around, I wondered what all these old songs were to people around me — everyone from jocks to teenagers. I'd first heard many of these tracks fresh out of an adolescence powered by rocket fuel-calibre angst, and they were a softening agent, a salve. It was clear that most of those present had draped their own sense of meaning over the band.
During the encore, Murdoch conceded to our nostalgia, kneeling to take requests. In doing so, he allowed the audience to appreciate Belle and Sebastian not just for who they are now, but for who they were, and what they once meant to us.