It’s hard to believe, but its been nearly 20 years since Scottish indie pop outfit Belle and Sebastian first appeared with their highly impressive debut album Tigermilk. Over the next decade, the Belles proved themselves to be as gifted as The Jesus and Mary Chain and Teenage Fanclub before them, winning international critical acclaim. Eight years, two studio albums and one teen comedy later, Glasgow’s finest returned to the Pabst Theater this past Friday with a brand new album, Girls in Peacetime Want To Dance and whole new stage show to boot.
Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett served as the evening’s sole opener. Barnett’s debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit was released this past March to near-unanimous critical praise, and rightfully so. Her sharp lyricism and ultra-melodic songwriting indeed make for a very strong collection of tunes. Barnett’s music recalls some of the Alternative Nation’s best moments, but what sets her apart from many of her contemporaries is that she goes beyond simple mimicry, with bigger hooks and more impressive guitar work.
Barnett’s songs thrived in a live setting, backed by a tight and energetic rhythm section who’s solid foundation allowed her to take the occasional detour into sheets of dissonant guitar noise (a decision that was much to the pleasure of the audience). Her set was an entertaining prelude to the evening’s main attraction; I can’t remember the last time I witnessed an opening act attract as much attention from a Milwaukee audience.
With Belle and Sebastians onstage arrival announced via video, the band began with “Nobody’s Empire,” the lead track off of the new album. Photos and lyrics accompanied the song, an entertaining enhancement which would return at various points during the set. The band then launched into the Thin Lizzy homage and fan favorite “I’m a Cuckoo.” The song’s interlocking guitar leads and complex vocal harmonies sounded just as strong onstage as they do in recorded form.
Frontman Stuart Murdoch has grown into an incredibly charming and charismatic performer, who’s high energy and clever banter contributes to the symbiotic relationship between audience and performer. For most of their career as a touring act, the band has always invited people on stage to dance, and while some of the evening’s participants got perhaps a bit too comfortable on stage, it was a mostly tasteful affair that only enhanced the evening’s already upbeat mood.
The evening’s setlist contained five of Peacetime’s twelve tracks, all of which were accompanied by its own corresponding video. The conga groove driven “Perfect Couples” was accompanied by an impressively choreographed dance party sequence. “The Power of Three” was given the full 120 minutes treatment with some 4AD-esque pseudo-goth visuals. Lead single “The Party Line” was backed by what appeared to be a reference to iPod commercials from the early 2000s. While these were not at all necessary, it was an interesting addition to an already impressive live act.
With a sizeable discography to choose from and their last Milwaukee appearance nearly a decade ago, the band wisely chose a variety of selections from their nine studio albums. “Mayfly” and “The Stars of Track and Field” sounded as fresh and vital as ever. Non-album singles “Jonathan David” and “Legal Man” were a pleasant surprise, only reinforcing their status as singular entities. And it’s not a Belle and Sebastian show unless people are pulled onstage for “The Boy With the Arab Strap.” While it may very well be their most performed song, it’s one of their
most definitive and continues to remain a fan favorite.
After an impressive 16 songs, the Belles left the stage only to return for a brief encore. While it was great to hear “We are the Sleepyheads” from 2006’s The Life Pursuit, it was the evening’s final song, the title track from their 1996 masterpiece If You’re Feeling Sinister that was not only a surprise, but the highlight of the evening. Hearing an old favorite such as that was perhaps the best way to end an already strong set.
Having seen the band a handful of times over the years, I can say that they generally never disappoint, and Friday night highlighted a band that’s as well rehearsed as ever. If you missed them this time around, it would be wise of you to not miss them on their next visit. Let’s just hope you don’t have to wait another eight years.