Ten great Ottawa Bluesfest sets: #9 Belle and Sebastian – Saturday, July 6th, 2013

(This year’s edition of Ottawa Bluesfest has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. In previous years, especially on my old blog, I would share photos and thoughts on some of the live music I was enjoying at the festival throughout the duration. So for the next week and a half, I thought I’d share ten great sets, out of the many I’ve witnessed over the years, one for each day on which music would have be performed. Enjoy.)

Belle and Sebastian live at Bluesfest 2013

Artist: Belle and Sebastian
When: Saturday, July 6th, 2013
Where: Claridge Homes stage at 8:00pm
Context: Where do I even begin? I mean Belle and Sebastian has been one of my favourite bands for a very long time. I’ve been following this Scottish indie pop band since some point around 1997 or 1998. One of my favourite ever albums is 1998’s “The boy with the arab strap” but I know each one of their albums intimately and have a bunch of them in my vinyl collection. But this set was my first and still only time seeing the band to date.

When Belle and Sebastian took the stage, they were an impressive sight. They are already a large band, sitting at seven full-time members, but then when you add in the string quartet, a cellist, additional keyboards and horn players, they had up to 13 musicians on stage at different points in their performance. Again, it was a pretty impressive sight and the sound was just incredible.

The biggest surprise for me of their whole set, though, was Stuart Murdoch. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I thought he was excellent and I’m not just talking about his singing and guitar playing. He was a delight with the audience from the beginning, telling stories and jokes between every song. He started off by mentioning that because this was their first time in Ottawa, they fully intended to play music from their entire catalogue. As Murdoch himself put it, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” He also called Ottawa the friendliest city in Canada and went on to the tell the story of how he went for a walk downtown and didn’t think he’d make it back to the festival on time so he jumped on a bus without correct change and the driver let him ride for free, “just this once”.

As promised, Murdoch and company performed tracks from all over their career. A couple of times during the set he introduced older tracks with the preface that they were for those in crowd that were older, like him, but that if the youngsters in the crowd knew the songs too, even better. There was so much from which to choose that they could have played but didn’t. Still, I was not disappointed in the least at the songs that made the set. In fact, I think I would have been happy with whatever they played but there was one song in particular that I really wanted to hear, that is, of course, the title track off “The boy with the arab strap”. And wouldn’t you know? They played it, along with another of my favourite tracks, “Legal man”, during a part of the set where Murdoch was feeling like dancing. He invited a few members from the audience to come up on stage while the band performed these two songs. It was brilliant.

The band finished off their proper set with “Judy and the dream of horses” and left the stage. But the crowd was not letting them off that easily, insisting on one more song. They returned, almost embarrassed, and Murdoch wondered aloud whether it was “bad protocol” to perform an encore at a music festival. We weren’t complaining at all, especially when he dove into another classic track, “Get me away from here I’m dying”.

The setlist
The backdrop
Stuart Murdoch and Chris Geddes of Belle and Sebastian
Stevie Jackson and Bobby Kildea of Belle and Sebastian
Dave McGowan and Sarah Martin of Belle and Sebastian
Richard Colburn of Belle and Sebastian
Stevie Jackson and Stuart Murdoch
Sarah Martin and Stuart Murdoch
Dancing to ‘The boy with the arab strap’

Setlist:
Judy Is a Dick Slap
I’m a Cuckoo
Expectations
I Want the World to Stop
To Be Myself Completely
Piazza, New York Catcher
If She Wants Me
Funny Little Frog / Seeing Other People
Like Dylan in the Movies
I Didn’t See It Coming
The Boy With the Arab Strap
Legal Man
Judy and the Dream of Horses
Encore:
Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying

Best albums of 1998: #1 Belle and Sebastian “The boy with the arab strap”

There used to be a ‘night’ in Toronto called “Blow up”, so named from a cult film of the same name from the 60s. It changed venues a few times but I’m pretty sure its final resting place before calling it quits was on the upstairs level of the famous El Mocambo lounge. I frequented this ‘night’ many times over the years, especially in the late 90s, because the DJs played a good deal of the music I enjoyed: British indie in the early hours and Northern Soul and Motown later on. It also helped that I was on speaking terms with a couple of the DJs.

I mention these nights of debauchery this morning because it was here that I first heard tell of Belle and Sebastian. I remember Darrell and Trevor, two of the aforementioned DJs, drunkenly raving to me about this band, ensuring to me that any one of their first three albums would be worth checking out, and drilling their name into my own drunken psyche. Why I picked “The boy with the arab strap” to sample first, I will never know for certain, but I did fall in love with it. And this was only the start of a decades long infatuation with the band.

Belle and Sebastian are quite well known now and likely as influential as the Scottish twee pop bands that influenced them, but back in the late 90s, they were largely ignored by North American mass culture. Led by Stuart Murdoch, his vast collective of multi-instrumentalists have put out a brilliant body of work, favouring EPs almost as much as they did full-length albums. They have built up so much of a following that they are no longer as ignored here on this side of the Atlantic and tour here quite regularly.

“The boy with the arab strap” is still one of my favourite albums, not just because it was the first that I first explored, but also because it was so focused on being counter mass music culture. Many of its songs are not just anti-pop songs but they actually reference the major labels’ attempts to court them. Like those DJs, Darrell and Trevor, impressed upon me, to really know them, you should take in a whole album by Belle and Sebastian, but in the interest of saving time, here are my three picks for you.


“Is it wicked not to care?”: Where B&S’s fist couple of albums were generally generated by Stuart Murdoch, this third album was more collaborative, with more of the band’s talented members contributing to the writing duties. “Is it wicked not to care?” was not only written but also song by Isobel Campbell. Yes, she of the Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell collaborations. She was a member of the collective for its first six years and here, her soft touch on vocals works its wonders, fitting right in with the feel of their album. All wistful and longing and angst-ridden, the dark lyrics glossed over with plenty of sunshine in the music. “If there was a sequel would you love me like an equal?” Awesome.

“Sleep the clock around”: Campbell adds her vocals on this track as well. Only this time, she duets with Stuart Murdoch, the two of them whispering a sort of rant that feels sung without taking a breath, a sort of second person narrative of youth, a pep talk for the disaffected. Laying a base for all these words is a cacophony of relentless drums, trumpet, keys, and even bagpipes (this last to close out the song). As a track two that follows a quiet opener, it’s quite the alarm clock that definitely wouldn’t allow you to sleep through. It is incessant and urgent for all its diffidence and knowing asides, you can’t help but feel cooler, just for listening to it.

“The boy with the arab strap”: I almost feel that this album would still be in this number one position, even if it were only this track, the title track, played over and over again. Yeah, it’s that perfect in my opinion. It’s got that endless organ loop that pulls you in and drags you under. The piano flourishes, the peppy drumming, and of course, the handclaps all serve to get your feet tapping. And from there it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to the dance floor. And I don’t even know how many times at the aforementioned “Blow up” (after the aforementioned conversation, of course) that this song dragged me up to jump and hop around to this song and sing along with its hilarious sketches and observances on the craziness of life. And, yes, to shout along with when he gets to the line that described the hero we all aspired to be in those days. “We all know you are soft ’cause we’ve all seen you dancing. We all know you’re hard ’cause we all saw you drinking from noon until noon again.” Brings back lots of good memories. I think.


In case you missed them, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Sloan “Navy blues”
9. Cake “Prolonging the magic”
8. Embrace “The good will out”
7. Mojave 3 “Out of tune”
6. Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”
5. Manic Street Preachers “This is my truth now tell me yours”
4. Pulp “This is hardcore”
3. Neutral Milk Hotel “In the aeroplane over the sea”
2. Billy Bragg and Wilco “Mermaid avenue”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best tunes of 2000: #4 Belle And Sebastian “Legal man”

<< #5    |    #3 >>

At some point in the early 2000s, the full season box sets of Gilmore Girls began being released on DVD and my wife, Victoria and I bought them and watched them all, as they were released, one season at a time. I’m not going to go into the wherefores of why I enjoyed and got hooked on the show right now but let’s just say that I did. The reason I mention this idiosyncrasy of mine this morning has to do with one of my favourite scenes that occurred at the end of episode 14, season 2 (no, I don’t have them memorized, I had to look it up).

Lane, the best friend of Rory (the younger of the Gilmore girls), is the Korean-American daughter of first generation immigrants, who is a music fanatic and snob. During the episode in question, she is grounded by her strict, traditional mother, something that happens frequently during the show for several reasons but in this case, it is problematic because the new Belle And Sebastian single is due to be released and she simply must be one of the first to hear it. Rory, being the friend that she is, procures a copy for her and orchestrates a drop off as Lane and her mother are walking through town, an intricate plot involving the town weirdo Kirk running interference while Rory’s mother’s employee, Michel, posing as a jogger, drops the disc in lane’s bag (watch the scene here). It’s hilariously like something out of Mission Impossible and all the while, the first part of “Legal man”, the single in question, is playing as soundtrack, lending the scene a 60s spy movie feeling.

Belle And Sebastian, as you are hopefully aware, are an indie pop collective out of Glasgow, Scotland that formed in 1996 and that were so prolific, they released two full-length albums in their first year of existence. The following year, they released three EPs of songs that never appeared on their LPs, something they would become known for doing. They also became known for twee-inspired chamber pop, whose witty and biting lyrics acted as counterbalance to the light tone of the music. Numerous releases and personnel changes later, B&S are still a going concern.

“Legal man” is the title track off another one of those standalone singles/EPs that I mentioned above, only being available on that release until the song and its two B-sides were included on the “Push barman to open old wounds” compilation. It is two and half minutes of frenzied bongo drumming (by Snow Patrol’s Jonny Quinn), snarling sitars, whirling hammond, and fun backing vocals by Rosanne Suarez and The Maisonettes. As you can imagine, with all those ingredients swirling in the lava lamp, “Legal man” is a retro and mod revivalist romp that spells magic on the dance floor. So get out your beach blanket and let’s boogie!

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.