Live Review: Belle and Sebastian – Manchester Cathedral 28.10.2014

Manchester Cathedral is a magnificently historic, Gothic edifice. On paper at least, giving a band like Belle & Sebastian the opportunity to play its hallowed nave appears both inspired and a mite sacrilegious, in a naughty-but-nice way. Is this not the band that sings about getting a “dose of thrush from licking railings” amidst other loaded innuendos?!

Pre-main act there is little to do except admire the architecture and peruse the hideously expensive merch and trestle-top bars. There’s no support band, only a DJ set. This in itself proves something of an oddity, as obscure anarcho-punk tracks by the likes of Honey Bane and Dirt fight to be heard above the chatter. Fond as I am of the old Crass era sound, it doesn’t do much to help build anticipation for the main stars. We amuse ourselves by crowd-watching, before dry ice begins to waft through the air, threatening to engulf all.

Finally Belle & Sebastian – six or seven of them officially, but I’m certain I count a few more through the foggy haze – arrive on-stage to a projected backdrop of artistically retro imagery. They start with a newbie, `Enter Sylvia Plath’ from their forthcoming new album. Its light frothiness suggests chart-single material, but it’s also a track which sums up the band’s quirkily inventive musicality: using the inspiration of the manically-depressed author (who committed suicide) with a quirky 80’s inspired disco number, a la Bronski Beat. It’s this entwining of whimsical indie-pop and melodic wall of sound, given meaning by a darkly comedic lyrical topping, that gives B&S much of their depth and intrigue.

Left to Right: Stuart Murdoch, Stevie Jackson, Bobby Kildea

Lead singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch is clearly taken with the austere surroundings as he chats and jokes in-between songs and the set list seems to draw intentional inspiration from the venue. If You're Feeling Sinister', with its lyrical overtones of despair and sexual angst in the midst of the search for spiritual meaning, raises the most rapturous applause. Listening to  Murdoch sing: <em>But if you are feeling sinister, Go off and see a minister, Chances are you’ll probably feel better, If you stayed at home and played with yourself’  feels close to a delicious act of sedition in this usually more formal place of worship.

Classics like She's Losing It' andDog On Wheels’  stand out in particular, as does another new song `Perfect Couples (Are Breaking Up)’. Here Stevie Jackson takes over main vocal duties, freeing Stuart to play bongos with a pop panache of his very own. The keyboards and softly soaring vocals of Sarah Martin are also more than worthy of a mention. While Murdoch is undoubtedly the  main man, such role-swapping within the band keeps the energy and interest flowing especially when the atmosphere at large is  slightly on the wane.

For The Boy With the Arab Strap'  Stuart encourages a few of audience members to join him up on-stage. This results in the peculiar sight of him singing while surrounded by a crowd of dancing adoring girls and one bloke for a couple of numbers! B&amp;S end on an encore withMe and the Major’, a song that is destined to encourage the most awkward, but desperately heartfelt, audience dancing of the night.

Acoustically and visually the imposing surroundings of the cathedral do oddly impair the performance.  The presence of so many pillars obscures the view for many and both the richness and subtlety of the Belle and Sebastian sound is somehow muted amidst the spread out expanse of the cold space. This has the effect of flattening the overall atmosphere, so it is fully to the band’s credit that their enthusiasm, audience interaction and energy make the gig work so well. No mean feat so many years and albums on from their inception. It reassures me that there’s plenty of good creative swag left in the Belle and Sebastian bag yet to be pilfered.

The adoring Stage Invaders surround their leader…

Belle and Sebastian release their new album `Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance’ on 19th and 20th January 2015 on Matador Records. An extensive UK tour follows in May 2015. See their official website for full details:

  • Crow Jane
Previous Meet: Nightmares and Dreamscapes - The Dark, Musical World of The Night Terrors
Next Premiere: Frontier Ruckus - Crabapples in the Century's Storm

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