Belle and Sebastian at Radio City: Concert Review

Matthew Allen
New friends help the group get the dance party started

Glaswegian indie darlings bring out the pipers, dancers as well as the hits.

"Girls in peacetime want to dance," asserts the title of Belle and Sebastian's new album, and dance they did at Radio City Music Hall: Every few songs the band was joined by four women guitarists Stevie Jackson claimed to have "just met on the street," dancers whose choreography ranged from dance floor abandon on the new tune "Party Line" to modern abstraction on another new one, the pensively political "The Cat with the Cream."

The dancers really were all but strangers to the musicians according to the group's publicist, who says they were new to the act and didn't even preview their moves for the band at sound check. But you'd never have known it from Wednesday's show, which seemed calculated to prove, to those who still don't get it after almost twenty years, that however wan and retiring Belle and Sebastian might have seemed at the start of their career, this is a band that wants you on your feet.

Last night, the indie darlings seemed least attached to the songs that gave them that fainting-on-the-divan reputation: "The State I Am In" and "If You're Feeling Sinister," both from 1996, were received very well by the crowd but felt less in-the-pocket than the later material. Their most confident performance of an early tune, "The Boy with the Arab Strap," was the one on which bandleader Stuart Murdoch invited dozens of pre-selected fans to have a party onstage, shaking their hips and looking only mildly self-conscious during "Strap" and "I Didn't See It Coming." With so many people around them, the core bandmates appeared to forget the cavernous room beyond the proscenium and relish playing for nothing more than their own pleasure. (One unauthorized audience member tried to crash that party, and was quickly ushered offstage.)

Playful in his black-and-white-striped mime's shirt, Murdoch seemed impressed but undaunted by the storied venue, joking at one point with Jackson about channeling the spirit of historic Radio City shows by the Grateful Dead. What they meant by that was unclear, but banter about the Mets made more sense, especially after a tender rendition of "Piazza, New York Catcher." The half-serious Big Apple pandering culminated with Jackson belting a bit of Guys and Dolls' "Luck, Be A Lady" without accompaniment and Murdoch starting up an impromptu version of Simon and Garfunkel's "59th Street Bridge Song" that tapered off before "feelin' groovy."

A varied program of videos on a mural-sized backdrop appeared to suffer occasional glitches, falling out of sync with the songs it was meant to accompany, but at some points the images were indispensable: While Murdoch played bongos and Jackson sang set highlight "Perfect Couples," the screen offered a crew of 60s-styled performers strutting in and out of a sitcom-ready living room, their repetitive, mannered gestures mocking the archetypes of mid-century American domesticity.

Having made good use of local players on strings and trumpet throughout the set, the Glaswegians brought a bagpiper out (though the sound crew lost her in the mix) for "Sleep the Clock Around," whose Autobahn propulsiveness was a great way to close the set. The two-song encore saw Dee Dee Penny of the Dum Dum Girls join Murdoch to sing "Lazy Line Painter Jane" (Penny pops up on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance) before a loose, buoyant rendition of "Judy and the Dream of Horses" that belied the lyrics' melancholy.

 

Setlist:

Nobody's Empire

I'm a Cuckoo

The Party Line

The State I Am In

Dirty Dream Number Two

Perfect Couples

Piazza, New York Catcher

Allie

The Cat with the Cream

If You're Feeling Sinister

The Wrong Girl

Dear Catastrophe Waitress

If You Find Yourself Caught in Love

The Boy with the Arab Strap

I Didn't See It Coming

Sleep the Clock Around

 

Encore:

Lazy Line Painter Jane (with Dee Dee Penny of Dum Dum Girls)

Judy and the Dream of Horses

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