Belle and Sebastian have been around for something like 15 prolific years now. They have their devotees, but they aren't cultivating stadium crowds and their lyric content, courtesy of Stuart Murdoch's humane and Whitmanesque vision, is not for Lady Gaga fans. But I have the sense, based on their last two studio recordings and their showmanship this past Thursday night at DAR Constitution Hall, that they know they could be raking it in more shamelessly if they wanted. But why should they want to? They are already making the best pop music the world has heard since the Beatles. They are terrifically accomplished musicians who seem to have gelled into a collective ego that simply focuses on creativity and the joy of shared music.
Stuart Murdoch, a lyricist of unfathomable emotional range, always tempers his disturbing stories with perspective and rationality, as exemplified in last night's performance of "Lord Anthony." Murdoch introduced the song by saying that it was a song about a kid who was having a difficult time getting along, and so he channeled 'his inner femininity' to get through. Then he asked the audience for some mascara. While he was singing the song, with a refrain that offered perspective to the poor suffering Anthony, 'You'll soon be old enough to leave them,' he walked to the side of the stage and allowed a woman to apply some mascara to his eyes.
And Stuart is quite a showman, inviting people on stage, giving them medals for the crowd-pleaser "The Boy with the Arab Strap," and signing autographs while singing "If You Find Yourself Caught in Love," then walking down the aisle guiding one thrilled and gasping young woman back to her seat. When he walked along the railing separating the floor seats from the box seats, he tossed autographed nerf footballs to the youngest audience members, while the band played the classic Booker T. and the MG's 'Green Onions.'
But Stuart isn't the only showman. I'm a particular fan of Stevie Jackson, who has lately reached Pete Townshend-like heights on guitar, and could be the singer-songwriter and leader of his own band. That he found his way to work with Stuart Murdoch is a miracle of good fortune for pop music lovers. Stevie introduced himself as 'Stevie,' then gave the audience a singing lesson on key-shifts before kicking into "The Real World." Both Stevie and Stuart complimented the audience for carrying the tune when it was over.
None of the other band members have a showman's flair, but all of them are first rate multi-instrumentalists, and I can't think of a drummer with better timing and rhythm in pop music today than Richard Colburn. There's Mick Cooke taking off his rhythm guitar to play muted trumpet. There's Booby Kildea taking off his bass to play rhythm guitar. There's Sarah Martin setting aside the cello to play keyboards. Stevie and Stuart also took turns with guitar and keyboards. Chris Geddes, ensconced on the keyboards, seems to hold it all together. This in and of itself is remarkable, but the truly remarkable thing is that there is no alteration in the fluidity of the songs, no diminution of the sound, or of the professional presentation. Most of us are conditioned to believe that each instrumentalist in a band is communicating his/her personality through the instrument. With Belle and Sebastian, the instrument is merely that, the means to a higher level. They are communicating their personalities through the synergy of melody and rhythm.
Knowing that, you might expect them to be like the Jesus and Mary Chain, arriving late, turning their backs to the audience, playing for spite as much as anything else. But they are all warm and welcoming onstage, relaxed, intimate and respectful of the love the audience radiates toward them.
If you consider yourself a fan of pop music and you are unfamiliar with Belle and Sebastian's recordings, get them and have your life changed for the better. However, you may have to go to Scotland to see them perform because they don't get over the pond too often, and they don't tour for prolonged periods. But, at least, you can say that you lived during the time that Belle and Sebastian played together. It can't go on forever.
**Special thanks to William Pittman for contributing this review**