Belle And Sebastian, ABC, Glasgow <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

The wonderful wizards of odd
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The Independent Culture

Almost exactly a year ago, a phone poll conducted by the Scottish entertainments magazine The List established that Scotland's favourite band ever was Belle and Sebastian. This tells us one of two things: either that, in the face of stiff competition from Simple Minds, the Bay City Rollers, Primal Scream and Franz Ferdinand, the national consensus is that the Belles are on a pedestal of admiration all of their own, or, perhaps more cynically (but certainly more credibly), they simply possess a fanbase whose kamikaze commitment to the cause outweighs all others.

In much the same way as The Smiths before them (even though the two bands are largely incomparable, musically), Belle and Sebastian draw a crowd of fans who are bookish and polite, and who measure their general ordinariness against a healthy sense of mild disaffection.

In Glasgow, and particularly in the studenty nexus of Byres Road and Great Western Road, for example, these acolytes may be identified by their devotion to the retro style of bandleader Stuart Murdoch and his long-departed cellist and muse, Isobel Campbell. Thick-rimmed glasses, hand-knitted scarves and well-thumbed second-hand copies of novels mentioned by Murdoch on his online blog are vital ingredients of this West End coffee-shop look.

It's a fact that Murdoch must recognise only too well. Towards the end of this show, he asked for the house lights to be put on, only to remark that the reflection from so many pairs of spectacles was dazzling him. Could all the boys kneel down out of sight, he wondered, to afford him a nicer view? Not wishing to offend, of course, they consented.

There's something about watching a Belle and Sebastian gig that feels like being let in on a big in-joke. So non-exclusive are the band that anyone may join in, yet the fact that most people just don't get the gag is conversely what keeps only those of a certain sensitive, leftfield taste interested. Still, that amounts to a lot of people: this was the first of three fully subscribed nights in this large venue.

There was a little something for everyone involved, but Murdoch, his co- vocalist and guitarist, Stevie Jackson, and the coterie of musicians, sometime backing vocalists and occasional string-section players who form the rest of the band (seven full-time members, five part-time players) were largely preaching to the converted.

In their six-album history (seven, if you count the soundtrack to Todd Solondz's film Storytelling), they have had many stand-out songs, yet to focus on more obscure album tracks and unheard songs from the forthcoming album, The Life Pursuit, didn't invite new ears to listen. Still, many of these new songs were the more memorable, like the tight stomp of "White Collar Boy" or the winsome "Sukie in the Graveyard" , about a student who was so poor that she had to stay in the attic of the nearby School of Art.

Despite the customary lack of volume in their live sound (a good or a bad thing, depending on the track), the between-song asides from the softly- spoken Murdoch and the more laddish Jackson reveal them to be as amusingly odd a couple as ever. Informing us that we could download The Life Pursuit to help us sing along, Murdoch produces a vinyl copy of the record to check the lyrics, while Jackson half-sings, half-mutters his own version of "I Belong tae Glasgae" to fill the dead air. Indeed, the pair's dancing to the wonderful "Electronic Renaissance" was an uncategorisable highlight.

The airing of the more well-known "I'm a Cuckoo" and "The Wrong Girl" may be interpreted as sops to the less hardcore fans. But a single encore of "Judy and the Dream of Horses", which saw Murdoch invite a fan to sing onstage only to find himself upstaged by a word-perfect rendition, rather poignantly summed up how much more this band mean to anyone who's actively devoted to them.

Touring to 10 February ( www.belleandsebastian.com)

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