A Post-Election Tonic to Lift the Spirits: Belle & Sebastian's 80s Grooves Storm Westminster
‘A mile and a half on the bus takes a long time/The odour of old prison food takes a long time to pass you by…’ Opening lines that are unlikely, on the face of it, to usher in the rousing finale of an evening of mostly upbeat pop music; even less, you might think, to tempt onto the stage dozens of grinning dancers from the crowd, many of whom are young enough to have been in nappies when the song was first released in 1998. But tonight in Westminster Central Hall ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ flips a wryly happy finger at the odds and does exactly that.
That’s not to say that the rest of the performance falls on reluctant feet. In fact, from the moment ‘Nobody’s Empire’ opens the show, preceded by a vintage public service broadcast on mid-twentieth-century Glaswegian civic works, a seven-strong Belle & Sebastian play a vigorous, disco-inflected set that would have led my eighteen-year-old, Tigermilk-loving self to wonder if he had somehow ended up in the wrong room - if not dimension.
that’s Stuart Murdoch and co for you: droll, unexpected, sad, funny - and surprisingly eager to get down
Throughout, Stuart Murdoch gives generously of a dance repertoire that makes up in furrow-browed enthusiasm what it lacks in formalist rigour. The band behind him have been playing together a good long while, now, and that shows both in the tightness of the grooves (‘Grooves!? At a Belle & Sebastian gig?!’- my eighteen-year-old self, again) and in the easy camaraderie that’s palpable on-stage.
To say ‘behind him’, of course, is to underestimate the extent to which Belle & Sebastian has always been an appealingly democratic prospect. Though Murdoch is without question the bandleader and main songwriting force, the spotlight moves easily between him, Stevie Jackson, multi-instrumentalist and singer Sarah Martin and the others, reinforcing the strong impression of a band interested in all its members’ personalities.
If there’s a weakness, it’s that Belle & Sebastian’s lightness of touch and off-hand, occasionally acerbic irony are better suited to more off-kilter fare like ‘I’m A Cuckoo’ and ‘If You're Feeling Sinister?’ than the disco grooves of the new album ‘Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’. Then again, possibly that’s eighteen-year-old me talking again; certainly, the lightness of touch makes for a more friendly and enjoyable atmosphere than that offered by Arcade Fire’s recent rather self-regarding, serious-as-the-grave excursion into ‘80s dance-grooves.
Anyway, where else but a Belle & Sebastian gig would you find the stage (of a venue, as Murdoch informs us, that hosted the first ever meeting of the United Nations) flooded with people dancing to a song whose concluding lines include ‘You’re constantly updating your hit parade of your ten biggest wanks’? But that’s Stuart Murdoch and co for you: droll, unexpected, sad, funny - and surprisingly eager to get down.
About the author
Abe Davies is a writer and journalist. He has a couple of literature degrees from UEA and St Andrews, and has written on everything from cognac to Shakespeare's ghosts to contemporary American photography. He's also worked in marketing and publicity in the publishing industry for five years, and when he was younger in a lot of restaurants.
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