First Night: Almost too good to be infuriating

Belle & Sebastian, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

James McNair
Monday 07 September 1998 23:02

ARTY, SENSITIVE and perhaps a little too precious, Belle & Sebastian don't do support tours, and their front man 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, "it would 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 scary moments last night, it almost seemed it would all end in farce. Taking the stage some 45 minutes later than billed, Belle & Sebastian were greeted with a fairly even mixture of cheers and boos. Despite Stuart Murdoch's claims that it had been "a technical problem", it all seemed a bit contrived. This lot 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, Murdoch's vulnerable-sounding vocals, the sense that you are watching a particularly inspired church hall practice session, and the feeling that it could all go pear-shaped at any moment are part of Belle & Sebastian's charm.

Highlights included the Motown-influenced "Dirty Dream No 2", complete with 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, it's tempting to cite Belle & Sebastian's modus operandi as the perfect embodiment of a purer ideal. They certainly have a unique, roughly hewn magic, but their attitude to their audience is dangerously glib.

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