Live Review: Belle & Sebastian @ Benaroya Hall, City Arts Festival 10/20

photos by James Bailey

Just from hanging around the lobby in Benaroya Hall before they allowed people in to take their seats, it wasn’t hard to tell that Belle & Sebastian’s performance on Wednesday was going to be a special one. It was one of the widest ranging crowds you could imagine, all eating finger foods, checking out merch, or drinking special Belle & Sebastian-themed cocktails that had names such as “Tigermilk”, “Dirty Dream #2″, and “Hayfever”. Mingling patrons ranged from younger fans you might expect to see at Neumos, to a decidedly older, sleeker crowd wearing blazers and sweater vests, to people from both camps trying to look like they belonged to the other. There were even a few kilt-wearers, which, considering that both Belle & Sebastian and openers Trashcan Sinatras are from Scotland, seemed unusually appropriate. It was all a testament to the breadth of Belle & Sebastian’s appeal, and one thing everyone in the building had in common was a childlike enthusiasm for what was certain to be one of the most memorable shows of the year.

After a nice little opening set of folky, island-tinged pop by Scottish four-piece Trashcan Sinatras, Stuart Murdoch and the rest of Belle & Sebastian came on stage to an uproarious ovation. I had been listening to Belle & Sebastian albums on repeat for weeks in anticipation of this show, knowing that I was finally going to be able to realize what it was like to see a band I had loved for so long live. It wasn’t until they started into their first song, “Expectations”, however, that it actually hit me that I was about to see all the music that had long been relegated to my living room speakers played live in front of me. It’s like when you’re planning for a big trip or vacation for months, making sure everything is packed, doing all the leg work, preparing yourself mentally, but when the day comes to do it to it and get on a plane, it always seems like the moment sneaks up on you. As soon as the trumpet kicked in on “Expectations”, I finally welled up with an appreciative realization that this show was actually happening, and I’m sure I was grinning ear to ear along with the rest of the audience as we settled in for a full night of twee-pop perfection.

Part of what made this performance special was the fact that it was in Benaroya Hall, which could cater to an instrumental arrangement that would allow Belle & Sebastian to play their songs as they were meant to be played. Four string players were seated to the back left of the stage, who alternated between playing along beautifully in unison, and waiting patiently for the next song they would be featured in, before which they’d turn on their music stand lights, sit up straight, and ready their instruments. Drummer Richard Colburn was set up to the back right of the stage, and went about his business inconspicuously the entire night. Six mic stands were lined up across the front of the stage. Multi-instrumentalist and lovely vocalist Sarah Martin was set up to the left, guitarist Stevie Jackson was set up to the right, and the others were used for horns and other instrumentation. Except, of the course, the middle mic, which was reserved for front man Stuart Murdoch, whose charisma and dynamism as a performer blew me away.

It was Murdoch’s unbelievable stage presence and personality that took the performance to another level, making it so much more than simply hearing Belle & Sebastian songs live. He talked and joked with the audience with ease between songs, and danced around the stage unabashedly during them, the whole time projecting a cheery, buoyant attitude that rubbed off on everyone in attendance. Before one song he mentioned how he “might need makeup for this one” and asked the crowd if anyone had any. I don’t think anyone thought he was serious, but he eventually urged some disbelieving women sitting toward the back of the venue to come up front and do him up. Murdoch took a seat on the edge of the stage as the girls giddily drew hearts and other designs on his face with lipstick before getting back up on stage and starting into the song. He left the lipstick on his face for the rest of the night.

Even though it might have felt unnatural because of the overall excitement in the venue, most everyone remained seated for the first part of the set, bouncing along as Belle & Sebastian played favorite after favorite of their absolutely beautifully constructed pop gems. There would be a few couples or single people who were standing and dancing at their seats, but not more than you could count on two hands. As the show progressed, more and more people began to loosen up and rise from their seats, and at one point Murdoch just called for people to come up to the front and dance. He picked out twenty or so girls to come on stage for “The Boy With The Arab Strap”, a gesture that turned the rest of the set into an all out dance party. Nearly everyone stood up and danced the rest of the night, and the aisles were clogged with fans who had run down to be closer to the stage.

After Belle & Sebastian had left the stage, and everyone had been standing up and cheering their hearts out for the encore, Murdoch appeared again waving a gigantic green flag with some type of crest in the middle. I couldn’t tell what it was at first, and assumed it was the Scottish flag, but after he slowed down, I realized it was the Washington state flag. At this point he could have led a parade out of Benaroya and into the Puget Sound and everyone would have followed him willingly. They played “Me and the Major” and “Judy and the Dream of Horses” for the encore, which, of course, was directly followed by more thunderous applause.

Along with the sheer diversity of fans in attendance, another sign of the magnitude of Belle & Sebastian’s performance was the number of people that seemed like they were at the show by themselves (myself included). For most people, it takes a lot to go solo to a concert, and especially a concert that is going to cost a decent penny, that is seated, and that you’re not going to have as good of a chance to meet someone at as a $15 show at Neumos. For many, however, this show was simply an opportunity that could not be passed up under any circumstances, regardless of if they knew anyone who could come with. I met two or three people who were also there by themselves. One of whom, Sophia, kindly provided me with a copy of the set list. In case you’re curious:

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  1. Posted October 25, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    It may have seemed like there were a lot of solo attendees because of the way that tickets were distributed. People with CityArts wristbands or “guestlist” had to show up at the same time as their friends AND have similar last names to wind up with tickets that weren’t randomly selected on the orchestra level. My friends and I all ended up at different ticket pickup windows and then ended up widely separated for the (excellent) show.

  2. John
    Posted October 27, 2010 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Great review! First time I saw them was in Malaga, Spain in 2005 (I was living in Portugal at the time), and then 2006 in Minneapolis, MN. It was wonderful to finally see them in my home town!

    One correction: Stuart picked the girls out of the audience during a long intro to “There’s Too Much Love” and that was the first song they were on stage dancing to. Then came “The Boy With The Arab Strap”.

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