SHEPHERD'S BUSH EMPIRE LONDON
ARTY, SENSITIVE, and perhaps a little too precious, Belle & Sebastian don't do support tours and their frontman doesn't do interviews. If their beautifully flawed records weren't so beguiling, this might spell commercial death.
As it is, the New Musical Express has already described The Boy With The Arab Strap as "one of the best albums of 1998", adding ruefully that "it'd be nice to know how it got that way". This lot don't do the media two-step, but they still seem to be leading the dance.
For a few rather testy moments tonight, it almost seemed that it would all end in farce. The tightly corralled audience was hot and bothered, and when Belle & Sebastian took the stage some 45 minutes later than billed, they were greeted with a fairly even mixture of cheers and boos - even the odd cry of "piss-takers!" Despite singer Stuart Murdoch's claims that it had been "a technical problem", few of us were convinced. This Glaswegian octet almost seem to enjoy walking the fine line between alienating their audience and creating rock myth.
Amazingly, they got away with it and though there was plenty of in-between song heckling, the end of each tune was greeted with feverish applause. Live, Stuart Murdoch's vulnerable-sounding vocals, the sense that you're watching a particularly inspired church-hall practice session, and the feeling that it could all go pear-shaped at any moment are all part of Belle & Sebastian's considerable charm. Each time the music stopped though, that charm evaporated as Murdoch proceeded to patronise us like only the hippest indie kids can. "Calm down, the heat's getting to you," he advised from up where there was still air to breathe. Yes Stuart. Very droll.
Highlights included the Motown-influenced "Dirty Dream Number Two", which featured a beautiful solo from their kilted trumpeter; "Stars Of Track And Field", played so quietly that you just had to listen; and "Is It Wicked Not To Care?", in which cellist Isobel Campbell took the lead vocal while Murdoch played glockenspiel.
In a pop world where economics often ride roughshod over aesthetics, some have cited Belle & Sebastian's modus operandi as the perfect embodiment of a purer ideal. Musically, they certainly have a unique, roughly-hewn magic, but their attitude towards their audience is dangerously glib. One fan told me afterwards that he was surprised how quickly the crowd forgave them. I have a feeling that the popular music press won't be so meek about it.
A version of this review appeared in some editions of Tuesday's paper