The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 53.0°F | Mostly Cloudy


By Devdoot Majumdar and Naveen Sunkavally

staff writers

Belle and Sebastian

May 4, 2002

Avalon Ballroom

For fans of music everywhere, few modern rock bands inspire such instant emotion as Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian. Some see the band’s music as “wuss-rock”; others may think the band’s arrival is something akin to the Second Coming of Christ. But for all the opinions and the quasi-mainstream acceptance of the band in such movies as High Fidelity and Storytelling, the band itself remains cloaked in mystery.

The band is notoriously media-shy, rarely posing for pictures and rarely giving interviews. Some may see this as snobbery; reviewers usually attribute it to a sense of democracy among the band, in which everyone’s an equal player. Nevertheless, the question remains: Who is Belle and Sebastian?

Belle and Sebastian is just a band that makes good music. The band is funny and down-to-earth. At the Orpheum last Saturday, lead singer Stuart Murdoch was willing to antagonize the Orpheum audience from the get-go, treading on dangerous territory when he mocked the Red Sox in their game against the Devil Rays. “Maybe next year,” he said. (He wasn’t aware that the Red Sox would come back to beat the Devil Rays off a pinch-hit grand slam in the ninth).

On another occasion, Murdoch scanned the audience looking for someone famous: “Is there someone famous here? ... Kim Deal isn’t here, is she?” he said, referring to the Pixies bassist. She wasn’t there, so the audience got to hear a rendition of “Gigantic” by an audience member named Rachel, who knew three words, “hey,” “Paul,” and “gigantic,” but nevertheless triumphed.

Belle and Sebastian looks like Parliament on stage. With an organ player, a drummer, five violinists, a cellist, four guitarists, and random dancing people pulled from the audience, the band may very well be a democracy. Whereas Murdoch is the creative center of this band, cellist Isobel Campbell’s soft meandering backup vocals and lead guitarist Stevie Jackson’s musical interjections make it clear that the band is very much an ensemble.

The band’s music is a mix of psychedelic ‘60s rock, orchestral interludes, and poignant harmonies that transcend the cheap film pop usually associated with chamber pop. Buffeted with the occasional flute, recorder, trumpet, and creative percussion (Poland Spring water bottles included), the hour-and-a-half set couldn’t help but engross the audience.

Without alienating their latest EP, Waking Up to Us, and without turning the concert into a “greatest hits” show, Belle and Sebastian dealt the audience a hearty serving of their enormous repertoire. The concert treaded the fine line between being a concert for older fans and the undoubtedly larger fraction of those who had never seen the band perform live before.

The well-known early songs ranged from the nerd anthem “We Rule the School” off their debut album, Like Dylan in the Movies, and “Seeing other People” off celebrated If You’re Feeling Sinister, and “Dirty Dream Number Two” and “The Boy with the Arab Strap” from the album of the same name. The band also played four songs off their latest album, Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like a Peasant.

Murdoch’s charismatic stagemanship led him to invite the members of the audience who jumped onto stage to dance with him. His atavistic dancing enabled the audience to catch his unathletic, scrawny chest bouncing through an unflattering undershirt, and the crowd loved it. Murdoch’s vitality and Campbell’s nonchalance endeared the band to the audience.

And even though the band got the entire Orpheum theater to stand up and at least sway to the music, the somber side of the band also found a place on the setlist. The band played “Don’t Leave the Light on Baby,” which was permeated with a tranquilizing bass and a slow drum beat.

Opening for Belle and Sebastian was the Aislers Set, a band with a faux-1960s appeal. Lead singer and songwriter Amy Linton came off as a girl with a high, fluttery voice more appropriate for whale calling. Her voice, which was often off-key, managed to singlehandedly clear a good third of the audience. The Aislers Set’s melodic interludes were short lived and unmemorable.

Perhaps the oddest part of the evening was glimpsing the mass that weathered the merchandise line for half an hour to get their hands on the elusive $25 Belle and Sebastian T-shirt. And for even more hardcore fans, the band offered to ail an audience reeling from a short encore with the “Belle and Sebastian Afterparty,” for which flyers were handed out as the audience sprawled out of the Orpheum.