Belle and Sebastian

Massey Hall, Toronto ON, April 1

Belle and SebastianMassey Hall, Toronto ON, April 1
Photo: Kevin Jones
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Belle and Sebastian occupy a rare musical space. Though the band lack "hits" in the traditional sense, they boast a robust back catalogue with clunkers few and far between. So these days, the quality of their shows should hang as much on their setlist as on stage chops. Last night (April 1), Stuart Murdoch and company proved that even in a set littered with new tracks from the Scottish group's latest album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, Belle and Sebastian are a band who's reputation survives not just on great tunes, but Murdoch's idiosyncratic charm.

Following fellow Glaswegian act Honeyblood (a duo who performed as a guitar and voice solo act for undisclosed reasons) the eight-member strong Belle and Sebastian, plus an additional quintet of local musicians on strings and trumpet, appeared monstrous onstage. Opener "The Cat with the Cream" was accompanied by a pair of dancers from the National Ballet of Canada, but the duo were quickly replaced by a clutch of fans who danced at the front of the stage to "I'm a Cuckoo."

Fresh from his experience directing God Help the Girl, Murdoch appears to have embraced a relatively cinematic approach to performance; many of the new songs were accompanied by videos, most involving dancing of some sort. With tracks like "Allie" and "The Party Line," the clips were charming visual background noise, but on others, like the "Jazz-Odyssey"-esque "Perfect Couples," the videos weighed the group down, and the set lost much of its sense of spontaneity.
 
Murdoch has shown a penchant for cutting a rug on stage in the past, but the dancier rhythms of the new album have put his moves into overdrive. In between, the singer shared the band's affinity for Toronto and Massey Hall in particular, joking around on stage with guitarist Stevie Jackson and singer and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Martin. Coming from someone who's become something of a road warrior in more recent years, these moments of unscripted banter proved to be some of the most endearing moments of the evening.
 
Dipping into their back catalogue, the band emphasized their newfound groove, applying it to classics like "Sukie in the Graveyard" and a beefed up "My Wandering Days are Over." A moving "Fox in the Snow," which Murdoch dedicated to Joni Mitchell, was a rare show of the group's more delicate side.
 
Murdoch invited anyone who wanted to dance onto the stage for "The Boy with the Arab Strap." The mass of bodies, which looked like the Peanuts gang, complete with vintage sundresses, obscured the band for most of the performance, until Murdoch made his way through the crowd to the edge of the stage to finish the song, toying with the tempo along the way. They remained for an impromptu run through "Legal Man," perhaps their best performance of the evening.
 
They finished the night teasing a few lines from "This is Just a Modern Rock Song," before transitioning to "Get Me Away from Here I'm Dying," a sentiment Murdoch admitted he in no way felt. A brief break brought the band back for "Sleep the Clock Around," which ended with Murdoch jumping onto Jackson's keyboards, and almost falling backwards before retaining his balance for the song's final notes. The move was a fitting reminder that it was the group's shambolic charm, not technical proficiency, that won over fans in the first place.
 
Their performance alone was plenty; maybe next time, leave the videos at home.


 
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