Belle and Sebastian At Massey Hall in Toronto on Tuesday
The guilty secrets from Glasgow were twee-rific on Tuesday, delighting a full room of fawners with romantic folk-pop, communal sixties cheer and thoughtful emotional rescue. Was the chipper troupe fan-friendly? Does Sean Connery wear a rug?
Singer-songwriter Stuart Murdoch was the ring leader, not only inviting dancing fans on stage, but presenting them each with neck-hanging medallions afterwards. Belle and Sebastian, an unpretentious seven-piece (plus string section) with no one named Belle or Sebastian among them, took song requests - the Kinks' You Really Got Me, for down-and-out Dave in the front row - and tossed out foam footballs.
The material was at times wistful but more often upbeat, presented in a quaint, amateurish manner. As musicians and vocalists, the group wins no contests. As for staging, there was none to speak of. These guys and girls were drably dressed, as if playing a pass-the-hat gig down at the local Fiddle & Ferret. The whole thing had the weight of a high school assembly, with the music faculty as the entertainment. "Wow, who knew Mr. Jackson could play the electric guitar like that?"
But if Belle and Sebastian is ill-equipped to cook up anything meaty or extravagant, it does know how to butter bread. An endearing performance mixed well-received songs that addressed a career which began in 1996 with a handful of tunes from the band's latest offering, the delightful Write About Love, a play on words. As the factory-fresh album was released on the day of the show, the crowd may have been less than familiar with the new material. This was what it sounded like:
Read the Blessed Pages An aching, delicate ballad, with wood flute and finger-picked acoustic guitar, opened the concert. Murdoch delicately sang about love, pain and sorrow - the conditions on which Belle and Sebastian have based its career: "Making plastic records of our history." The actress Carey Mulligan sings the high harmony on the album. In her place at Massey, the breathy Sarah Martin.
Write About Love Groovy Carnaby Street garage-pop, with an empathetic Murdoch inviting fans to write about love - "It can be in any tense, but it must make sense." Martin countered with sugary despondency: "I hate my job; I'm working way too much." Scrawling about love, as an escape and bookish therapy? Hey, it works for Belle and Sebastian.
I'm Not Living in the Real World A strummy, penny-whistled interactive entry that began in C major- "the most sing-along of all keys," assured singer-guitarist Stevie Jackson. With an audience capably handling the "Oooh-woo-woo-woos," Jackson sang a dizzying ditty about the unreal world of classrooms and schoolyards. The rugged strumming pattern mimics something out of The Who's Tommy, but the off-kilter vibe is Dan Bejar-like. The song didn't stay in C, but the unpaid chorus handled the escalating keys with aplomb.
I Want the World to Stop The least successful of the new tunes, all light psychedelia and funky bass line - stylistically, something like a twee Sloan. Murdoch moved a bit here, employing a type of mellow dancercise. I wanted the song to stop.
I Didn't See it Coming A trashy drum-beat intro - I didn't see that coming. The string section took a break for this one, a dark-but-upbeat pop number sung by the thin-voiced Martin, who wished "make me dance, I want to surrender." A nice mix of New Pornographers and romantic eighties synth-pop, with Murdoch, thumbs in his front pockets, joining in for the late-song duet.