Belle & Sebastian bring Scottish charm back to Chicago after four-year break

Peter Boyle

The Glaswegian band Belle & Sebastian has been largely inactive since the release of the 2006 record “The Life Pursuit” and the tour in support of it. The band has also stayed off the road since that time, playing almost no shows in the United States or their native United Kingdom in the past four years.
Aside from the “BBC Sessions” compilation, the group hasn’t released any new music either. However, on Tuesday Oct. 12 the band released their newest LP, “Belle & Sebastian Write About Love,” and on Monday Oct. 11 made their only stop in the midwest at the Chicago Theatre.
The opener for the show was the local group Smith Westerns, whose pop sensibilities and saccharine lyrics about love are undercut on record by a lo-fi aesthetic. The live setting did not afford the group any ability to muddy their sound, so their set was largely a nostalgic pop jaunt.
The band’s only introduction was, “We are Smith Westerns. This is our music.” Minimizing chatter to requests for sound adjustments, frontman Cullen Omori led the band through 10 songs that barely lasted 30 minutes.
As a young band whose members age only from 18 to 20 years old, Smith Westerns seemed to have some difficulty commanding a crowd of over 3,500 people. Many concertgoers arrived during their set, and combating apathy was a struggle for the group.
Most of the songs elicited no rise from the seats and sounded thin in the expansive venue. Nonetheless, lead single and set closer “Be My Girl” garnered a loud cheer, and album tracks “Dreams” and “Girl In Love” played well even without their fuzzy edge.
Belle & Sebastian took the stage to bright purple lights and launched immediately into the “Write About Love” opening track “I Didn’t See It Coming.” The group’s usual intimacy was instead replaced with a keyboard-driven, slow-burn sound; it became apparent over those four minutes that the group had spent at least some of their four-year stagnation considering the parameters of their sound.
This experimentation did not seem to bother the devoted fans, who promptly stood during “I’m a Cuckoo.” The group’s primary songwriter Stuart Murdoch commented playfully on the division between those seated and standing: “Some of you are really into it, but some of you are more casual fans – you aren’t impressed yet.”
Comparing the evening to a romantic encounter, Murdoch joked that though the set started with high energy, the band would slow things down, and promised the audience, “You’ll help us out, we’ll help you out, and we’ll all come at the same time.”
Murdoch’s comments set the tone for the group’s stage presence, which bordered on silly. Autographed Nerf footballs were thrown to the children in the audience; a troupe of ‘clappers’ was drawn from the audience for two songs; Murdoch danced with one woman he invited from the pit seating.
Another woman applied mascara to the singer’s face during the third verse of “Lord Anthony”, a song about cross-dressing. These antics did distract from the performance to some degree, but were refreshing in light of the band’s somewhat dull live reputation.
The group’s set deftly weaved through their extensive catalog, reaching back to B & S debut album “Tigermilk” for “She’s Losing It” and playing an encore of songs only from the seminal sophomore record “If You’re Feeling Sinister.” The new material from “Write About Love” sat well amongst the “Life Pursuit” tracks especially, particularly the segue from minor-key four-on-the-floor romp “I Want the World To Stop” to the effervescent “Sukie in the Graveyard.”
Though a mic issue prevented “If You Find Yourself Caught in Love” from reaching its potential, the band sounded tight for the entire set, and the inclusion of four local string players helped flesh out many of the more lush arrangements.
The key to Belle & Sebastian’s effect, however, is arguably not musical talent but demeanor, and the band offered plenty of innocent charm. Ending the show with “Me and the Major,” a track exploring inter-generational relations, the group did get the entirety of the diverse audience dancing.
Perhaps it was a long wait, but four years of playing hard-to-get have made America’s consummation with Belle & Sebastian all the sweeter. The crowd seemed satisfied that Murdoch and his cohorts fulfilled his promise to please. Hopefully the midwest won’t have to wait until 2014 to greet the band again.