TWEE’S A CROWD : Belle and Sebastian Live @ Benaroya Hall (City Arts Fest)


Belle and Sebastian

Benaroya Hall

Seattle, Wa

October 20, 2010

I was twee when twee wasn’t cool…sometimes it’s good to be old” – {Facebook post from my best girlfriend Maria, via her Paris flat, in response to learning that  I would be attending the Belle and Sebastian performance for City Arts Fest 2010}

I was seriously excited, but not a little bit apprehensive about attending this show alone on a Wednesday evening.  Exhausted after a night of insomnia followed by a long day of office work; I knew I would be getting up at five to go to work the next day.  I was just praying that the sweet vocal harmonies wouldn’t lull me to sleep.  “Don’t let me miss the whole thing, asleep in  a cozy Symphony House chair”  I told myself.

Belle and Sebastian is a longstanding favorite in my music collection, but this is the music I do other things by.  I wash the dishes to it, take road trips to it, and ride the bus to it.  It’s one of my five year old’s go tos for singing along in the car (Her eyes half closed as she harmonizes from the back seat.).  Belle and Sebastian was on my wedding-mix, my baby-birthing-mix, and was the soundtrack to my deep deep days as a painting student at University.  I never considered going to see them alone in my 30’s, but going pensive and solo would have been just the thing I might have done in earlier years.

I remember when I was slipped my first taste of Tiger Milk (1996), a transferred “Cassette” tape, from another painting school friend.  Standing next to Maria, or some other beautiful philosophical friend, I swayed and contemplated figure painting and deep Glasgow love songs.  This music was a perfect segue from The Smiths of my teens.  Clever vocals and beautiful harmonies, all sent through a retro pop blender.  Now I would experience it live, but I felt like I needed someone to share it with; some sweet new love to hold hands with, or some old friend to wink knowingly at.

God, I felt tired.  I also felt a wee bit twee-cliché; as I had, very coincidentally, arrived from work in my most retro-ey art-house black 60’s boat/turtleneck, vintage brooch, and pencil skirt.  I was self-conscious about accidentally dressing the part, but was soon put at ease by a nice girl (of 17) who was attending the show alone as well.  She was excited about the all-ages venue, and sweetly fawned over my clothes, as we waited in line for our seat assignments

The crowd was a good one; meaning it was a mix of ages and types.  There were retirees, hepsters of all ages, a slick down-towney after work crowd, the knowingly disheveled twenty-somethings, those people who dress like lumber-jacks 24/7, and even kids with their parents.  All in all, it was a crowd filled with loads of great shoes and eyewear.  I even spied a Heidi-inspired teen transvestite with, what I assumed, was her older mother.  Belle & Sebastian and I had our private moments, but I never considered their wide appeal.

I found my seat.  And, then switched for an even better seat, so two friends could sit together.  Now, I sat between two dating couples.  One couple discussed Marx and Engels, the other played with each other’s fingers.  I fidgeted in my seat, drank a giant coffee, and listened to the quiet sounds of the opening Trashcan Sinatras.  The Sinatras sat in four seats across the front of the stage and thanked the staff for giving them such nice chairs.  I had never heard this band before, but they seemed to have their own devoted following mixed in with the crowd.  They make the sort of music that I wanted some boy to write for me when I was thirteen.  There were loads of cheesy love songs and tons of nice harmonizing moments.  I liked the mix in of slat-key guitar, alt-country twangs, and medieval-esque sounds.  I particularly enjoyed the older/popular “Hayfever” which was a little darker than their other songs.  They threw in a new song called “I See the Moon” and a Robert Burns tribute from their new album.  The lead singer has a soothing voice and the bongo player was in a sort of Sufi-like trance (if Sufi’s played the bongos).  They just seemed like nice guys playing some quiet music.  If this band was any indication of what was to come, I would be asleep in no time.

Intermission included more giant coffee with cookies.  At last there was uproar and applause as Stuart Murdoch pranced on to the stage.  It turns out that I didn’t need the coffee or worry.  The atmosphere was electrified by the presence of this band that I had somehow never considered a live event.  They started the set with “Expectations” from Tigermilk (the album from that old cassette tape).  Everyone was rocking in their seats.  The “deep” dude next to me had stopped pompously quoting Marx and started singing along and smiling like he was a kid.

The venue for this event was perfect too!  The Symphony Hall acoustics were fantastic.  The large stage accommodated string players, horns, six mic stands, keyboards, drums and other instruments with room to spare.  Murdoch even joked that there was too much room.  “There’s so much room we could have built a bowling alley right here. It would have given me something to do between songs.

Vocalist, Sarah Martin took a charming backseat to Murdoch.  She stood, and sometimes sat on the ground, off to the left; gracing the stage with her tender voice and various instruments (melodica, piccolo, flute and strings).  Other band members moved between instruments and mic stands with ease, creating a luscious pop machine.  I often see live music and wish that I had just stayed at home, listening to the studio perfect tracks in my long-johns and headphones. This evening reminded me as to why I occasionally need to put my skirt on after 9 PM.

Right, this band has been making music together (in some incarnation) since 1996, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that they’re good live.  Still, no matter how many adjectives I abuse I just can’t get across how good they actually are; the combination of soft and fast, acoustic and electric, and even occasional silence.  The mix of songs was great as well; a definite “best of”, featuring the title tracks from Write About Love (2010) and The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998), as well as “Lord Anthony” from Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003).

Clearly a great team, but the magnetism of the lead-man is the real story here.  Murdoch slapped a tambourine on his ass while pivoting around like a, slightly proper, British James Brown.  He had us rapt with clever banter and palpable charisma; chatting between songs about the goldfish, “Murray“, in his hotel room (leaking their Monaco Hotel location unknowingly).  He talked about how rainy it had been on tour, but how sunny and beautiful Seattle was, “Sunny Glasgow, just like Sunny Seattle…I feel solidarity between Seattle and here…”.  Murdoch was obviously present and enjoying himself.  This crowd was enraptured too, but the onlookers were only bopping politely, with few dancing exceptions, until he enticed the audience to bring forward make-up; “I might need make-up for this one” he said.  Eventually, a few unsure audience members came forward to meet the singer where he perched at the edge of the stage and decorated his face with lipstick.  At that moment the mood had changed.  Now it was clear that, despite the the implied stuffiness of the venue as a symphony hall, audience participation was being encouraged.  Murdoch entered the audience and brought people back onstage with him.  Ordinary Seattle girls danced behind him and soon, everyone else was dancing in front of him.  The audience rose and moved to the aisles, the stage… anywhere that there was space, people were dancing.

I can’t give an exact play-by-play after this moment, because I tossed my notepad and coat on my seat and walked myself to the edge of the stage.  I danced through my sciatica and my sometimes closed eyes, until the band left the stage and returned for the encore.  When the front man returned to the the dark set he was waving a gigantic Washington State flag, which he must have grabbed off of some random backstage wall or post.  Everyone cheered.  They ended with “Judy and the Dream Horses.”  Even after the applause finally subsided I continued to stand for a moment, and was lucky that I did.  Bobby Kildea handed me a set list from the stage.  He said they would be out to sign things at the merch table after the show.

I would have generally found my car as fast as possible, but I waited around the merchandise and bought the new album from the beautiful girl featured in the CD cover sleeve.  Soon the members began to trickle out and chat with the few people that were still left standing around.  I was dumb-struck.  They were lovely and down to earth, so I had nothing to say.  Each member signed my set-list easily, but Stuart Murdoch struggled with my four-color pen. “Umm… it’s got four colors” I said, showing him how to use it.”  “…I apologize I’m knackered, and confused by this retro pen” he responded. “What color is this one, I am color blind?” “Green” I said. “Good Green, what’s your name?” I looked at his face and said nothing…then… “Oh it’s for a friend.”  He was trying to have an actual conversation, but I could say only thank you.  I had been blown away, and would send this set-list to Maria (a nod to our cool youth).

I walked to my car high on music, slipped in the new CD, and sang my way home.  I am sure I wasn’t the only girl (or boy; the one behind me kept screaming “I love you Stuart”) that fell in love –again– with Belle & Sebastian that night.  This event went well beyond my expectations.  Old and twee… I had haphazardly found myself at one of the best performances of the year.

Live photos of event by Nate Watters.