Review and photos – Belle and Sebastian at the Vogue Theatre, Vancouver, June 29 2018
– review by Karina Espinosa, photos by Kirk Chantraine
For over 20 years, Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian have made a career out of being themselves. Initially pegged as outsider music for the meek and mild, the band has since evolved into a respected indie pop staple enjoyed by a broad audience. Friday night saw the first of two back-to-back shows at the Vogue, and epitomized the quirky (and yes, dorky) spirit of Belle and Sebastian’s music.
A modest crowd had formed before Japanese Breakfast, the opener, came onstage. Having been to Vancouver multiple times, the indie-rock group, led by Michelle Zauner, has built up an enthusiastic local following. Young girls standing in the front row marveled over the lead singer and guitarist. While Zauner played with confidence, her adoring fans sang along to songs like “Machinist” and “Everybody Loves You” without reserve.
It was impossible to keep your eyes off the frontwoman, whose effervescent energy managed to radiate across the entire venue. Her performance was both athletic and theatrical as she bounced across the stage and sang with unrestrained passion. “This is the first night I’m performing sober,” Zauner admitted with a grin. She kept smiling throughout, even during melancholic numbers like “The Body is a Blade.” The song was one of many that the band played from their sophomore record, 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet. Japanese Breakfast’s stage presence was powerful; it’s only a matter of time before the group starts headlining large shows of their own.
Belle and Sebastian is currently on tour to promote their latest releases, a trio of EPs entitled How to Solve Our Human Problems. But for their sold-out Vogue show, the seven-piece pulled out songs from past albums. Beginning with “Act of the Apostle” which then slid into “I’m a Cuckoo,” the band kicked things off at an uptempo pace. When the group played Tigermilk’s (1996) “You’re Just a Baby” a third way into their set, many people were already worn out from their fervid dancing. For his part, frontman Stuart Murdoch shimmied across the stage in a subdued groove.
Speaking of Murdoch, the lead singer made the sizeable Vogue Theatre seem intimate. But it wasn’t because of the way he sang songs like “We Rule the School” in his soft, low voice. Rather, it was the moments in-between songs, when conversation flowed out of him with ease. Whether addressing his band mates or the crowd, Murdoch spoke to everyone in a familiar manner. Sincere and sometimes humourous, the banter added to the light-hearted atmosphere of the evening.
Murdoch shared vocal duties with keyboardist/violinist Sarah Martin and guitarist Stevie Jackson. Whereas Martin played the flute and sung sweetly on “I Can See Your Future,” Jackson kept things upbeat with “The Wrong Girl.” Like Murdoch, Jackson was cheerful, balancing effortless guitar playing with nerdy dance moves. At times, some vocal harmonies were difficult to hear, but the instrumentation was spot on. With the myriad instruments used—including recorders, a cello, bongos and a harmonica—the band managed to deliver an ambitious but tight set.
Judging by the crowd’s gleeful response, the highpoint of the night was the 1998 hit, “The Boy with the Arab Strap.” In what has become a tradition during the band’s live performances, Murdoch pulled some audience members onstage to dance. The spectacle seemed like a flashy gimmick at first. But as the few chosen showgoers cut loose with the band, it became clear that Murdoch wanted to create a friendly, inclusive environment. Those same people gave it their all, and by the end of the number they descended the stage sweaty and smiling.
During the encore, Murdoch introduced “The Party Line” as an appropriate choice for a Friday night. Given the band’s extensive catalogue, a song from Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (2015) was a bit disappointing. But Belle and Sebastian satisfied nostalgic cravings when they followed up with an If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996) classic, “Me and the Major.”
It’s undeniable that the band pulled off an entertaining performance. By the night’s end, it seemed as if everyone possessed the same carefree whimsy that made Belle and Sebastian so special in the first place.