FOR a band known early on for playing downbeat folk songs and spending a lot of time onstage tuning their instruments, Glasgow’s Belle & Sebastian have become one of the most reliably engaging, even restorative, live bands on the planet. Last night’s show at the theater at LA’s newish Ace Hotel was so full of joy and great music — especially striking given that the band was birthed by depression.
Last night’s show was one of a handful of US dates in which the group gets ready to tour on a new album — GIrls in Peacetime Want to Dance — that comes out in the winter. The evening showed what a wide-ranging tool-kit they have these days: Guitarist Stevie Jackson made a joke about how they were going to strain to play more than just Velvet Underground-influenced folk songs, but they’ve got the ability to to intimate and expansive, brooding and celebratory — in a mix of chamber-pop and rockers — and still sound like themselves.
They played with a small string section and horn player for some numbers and stripped down for others. Guitars and players were switched out so often that it seemed like each song had its own blend of musicians and instruments. Some of the numbers were accompanied bv short films or photos; mostly it worked, and we may see more of this since the band’s founder is now an acclaimed indie filmmaker.
They played songs from across their career, including a lot of early stuff — Photo Jenny, Suki in the Graveyard, The Boy With the Arab Strap. For the last two of these, singer Stuart Murdoch invited a few people to come onstage and dance, but it soon got very crowded. “It’s like playing a gig in a bus station!” the wiry/ blond vegetarian frontman shouted.
A few songs in, Murdoch bounded into the audience, asked the crowd who had the worst day. The winner would get to pick the next song. A bespectacled, Smiths-y looking guy in front of me talked about being dumped by a girlfriend who exchanged him for his best friend (I think I have that right), and then requested the strummy “Piazza, New York Catcher.”
The group originated during a seven-year-stretch of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by Murdoch; he emerged from it thanks to music and church-going. A school assignment led to his forming a band and recording Tigermilk, which became the first B&S record, released in a very small batch in the UK and then, after the group found fame, a few years later in the US.
The tension between Murdoch’s introversion (I bumped into him briefly before the show) and the group’s communal cheer is part of what makes their performances so complex and resonant. He really gives of himself onstage; you feel a kind of conspiratorial thrill just being there.
So overall, this was as good a show as I’ve seen this year, and it’s always reassuring when a band you love plays with commitment and freshness a decade and a half after starting out. Caveats: I would have liked to hear more of Jackson’s reverb-drenched guitar. I also would have loved to hear some of my favorites — Lazy Line Painter Jane, The Blues Are Still Blue, I Want the World to Stop. (Like Wilco, they have so many good songs they can play a full set and leave a bunch out.)
The two or three new songs they played seemed to me mixed; maybe I’m still adjusting to them and to their less guitar-based sound. And no man should go onstage with a keytar. (I am just glad that Murdoch, who joked with Jackson about his love for Lionel Richie’s All Night Long, did not break into the Miami Vice Theme.)
The encore was Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying. By that point, I was really wishing I could come back for Tuesday’s show. They are Britain’s greatest band, I think, and remain an absolute delight live. I’d had a shitty few days — including having my car totaled thanks to an incompetent driver — but left feeling benevolent and lucky to live in the same world as Belle & Sebastian.