Fog, wind, the constant threat of rain-that was the scene at the Brooklyn waterfront Thursday night when Belle and Sebastian showed up to kick off their long awaited 14-date U.S. tour at the East River State Park.
It might have been appropriate weather for the Glasgow band a decade ago when they became the darlings of lo-fi melancholy. But over their last couple of records, B&S have refashioned themselves as sun-dappled '70s pop stars. They recorded their last disc-the near perfect The Life Pursuit-in L.A., and their new record (due Oct. 12) is called, quite simply, Belle and Sebastian Write about Love.
All those sunny vibes flowing off the stage stood in stark contract to the night's gloomy weather, to the fog capping the Empire State Building across the river, to the massive thunderstorm that kept threatening to arrive, but never did. And that was just fine. "I wish we had a giant mirror that we could put behind us so you could see what's happening behind you," frontman Stuart Murdoch marveled, referring to the Manhattan skyline splayed out in front of him. "Though I suppose you see it everyday."
But New Yorkers certainly don't get to see Murdoch's band every day. In fact, they haven't been to the city since 2006. Fortunately, Murdoch and family made those four long years worth the wait. B&S' performance had all the easy professionalism and panache you'd expect from a band that's been around for 15 years, yet the show never lost its pep or sense of spontaneity. Nothing seemed forced or fussed over.
The evening's set pulled from every corner of the group's catalogue-from the candlelit folk-rock of their early days ("Judy and the Dream of Horses," "Dylan in the Movies") to the West Coast pop of their recent records ("Step in My Office, Baby," "Sukie in the Graveyard"). And of course, there were the new tunes. "I Didn't See it Coming" started out the evening on a dreamy note, Sarah Martin's breathy vocals stretching out over warm keyboard and arpeggiated guitar, making the song sound almost like an Air B-side.
On the other hand, lead-single "Write About Love" and "I'm Not Living in the Real World," a three-chord wallop sung by guitarist Stevie Jackson (who got a few thousand hipsters to sing the harmony), wouldn't have sounded out of place on Life Pursuit. Write About Love, in other words, is shaping up to be another sunlit big-band pop record.
"It's been a while since we've been here and I imagine some of you have procreated," Murdoch said after the new tune "I Want the World to Stop." He asked if there were any "Baby Belles" in the audience, a handful of parent's hands shot up, and Murdoch proceeded to toss a bunch of little plush footballs out into the audience "for the kids only." "We've all sat on these so they might be worth something," Murdoch said with a grin.
But the singer made sure to spread the love around-or at least to the seven lucky people he handpicked to come up on stage. Murdoch corralled his star-struck fans in a corner to clap along to "There's Too Much Love" (from 2000's Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant) before letting them dance along with him (for Murdoch, this meant a lot of fey skipping and wiggling) to a wistful "The Boy with the Arab Strap." After the song, Murdoch placed medals around the necks of six of the crew and promised to mail a seventh medal to the last fan after realizing he had run out. "He's a man of the people!" someone yelled a few minutes later. Truly.
And so in their own way were the night's openers Teenage Fanclub, another Glasgow band who over 20 years have quietly developed a small but deeply dedicated fan base in thrall to their fractured guitar pop. And they've got a new record, Shadows, to promote five years after their last one. Their warm-up set for B&S was workmanlike but never boring. The blissful "Baby Lee," a single from Shadows, nailed the classic Fanclub sound-all major chords and big, bright harmonies.
Though the set's highlight was surely "The Concept," the epic opener from the band's debut, Bandwagonesque-the record SPIN memorably picked over Nirvana's Nevermind for album of the year back in 1991. Does the band give much thought these days to what could have been? Probably not. At least not when they're playing to a park full of happy fans while gazing out at the majestic vista of Manhattan.
I Didn't See It Coming
I'm a Cuckoo
Step in My Office, Baby
Dylan in the Movies
I'm Not Living in the Real World
Piazza, New York Catcher
I Want the World to Stop
Sukie in the Graveyard
We Rule the School
Another Sunny Day
Middle Distance Runner
Write About Love
There's Too Much Love
The Boy with the Arab Strap
If You Find Yourself Caught in Love
Judy and the Dream of Horses
Sleep the Clock Around
Me and the Major
Get Me Away from Here