Review and Photography by John Bentley

Glasgow indie heroes Belle and Sebastian are back on the road promoting their latest music and reviving classic and much-loved songs from their 1990s heyday. Over the past few months B & S have released a trilogy of mini-albums under the ambitious collective title of ‘How to Solve Our Human Problems’ and they are now in the midst of an extensive world tour.

Belle and Sebastian, Manchester Bridgewater Hall, 12-03-18

The support tonight is US singer-songwriter Julien Baker. She has two albums under her belt and quite a following: it turns out quite a few of her fans are here to see her perform a 40 minute solo set accompanying herself on guitar and keyboards, with a violinist also helping out on several songs. Her pure high-pitched voice rises about the trilling guitar. The songs are all fairly slow-paced and listening carefully to the lyrics is clearly important to appreciating her songs.

Julien Baker, Manchester Bridgewater Hall, 12-03-18

I first saw Belle and Sebastian live back in 1997 at Manchester Town Hall. It was an eventful evening: I was taking my then teenage daughters to the gig and I managed to bump the car on the way. Fortunately it was still driveable and we got there to see B & S supported by (the band) Arab Strap. The Town Hall was set-up with a very unusual central linear stage with audience on both sides and B & S’s set was a little eccentric and shambolic, although rather charming. I seem to remember them muffing-up some songs and having to start again. More on this later…

Back then B & S seemed very shy and shunned publicity and the limelight. It’s a different, very professional and confident, Belle and Sebastian that take the stage at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall tonight, keen to engage with the audience at every opportunity. The set tonight comes from across the 20 plus years of the band’s career, starting with early songs ‘Dog on Wheels’ and ‘Dirty Dream Number 2’, then moving on to new single ‘We Were Beautiful’. Looking at the setlists from the current tour B & S are obviously relishing delving into their extensive back catalogue, because the songs played are different every night.

Belle and Sebastian, Manchester Bridgewater Hall, 12-03-18

Tonight B & S are supported by a string quartet that adds texture to many of the songs and there’s also a trumpet player, the latter particularly essential to the sound of the early Belle and Sebastian songs. The sound quality is excellent and B & S’s songwriting skills shine through. For me it’s the older material that really appeals, with its fragility, simplicity and beautiful melodies. Visuals are projected onto the backscreen all evening, including the typical ‘faces of ordinary folk’ that appear on many of the band’s albums.

Before playing ‘The Fox in The Snow’ frontman Stuart Murdoch reminisces about playing in Manchester in the past, including that first time in 1997. He seems to share my memories of that gig being a bit shaky, because he promises to try and make a better job of the performance tonight. Murdoch does most of the singing, with guitarist Stevie Jackson taking over on a few songs including ‘Sweet Dew Lee’ and ‘(I Believe In) Travellin’ Light’, while multi-instrumentalist Sarah Martin sings lead vocal on ‘The Same Star’.

Belle and Sebastian, Manchester Bridgewater Hall, 12-03-18

Stuart Murdoch clearly likes dancing and several songs in there are a few audience members joining him by gyrating in the aisles. The seated venue rather inhibits this audience participation, but B & S have a way of dealing with this – get the audience up on the stage. Murdoch invites people to get up with the band and dance, as they launch into ‘Sukie in the Graveyard’. He gets everyone sitting down again during ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’, which features some nice playing from the string section. But then, as he plays the opening rollicking electric piano chords of ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’, it suddenly seems like half the auditorium is up on its feet. They must have played the song a thousand times, but it really still sounds great and impossible to keep still to. Murdoch finishes the song sitting on the edge of the stage singing the closing lyrics with a loud-hailer. There is some footage of this ‘stage invasion’ on YouTube.

The excitement is maintained as B & S unexpectedly launch into the distinctive riffs of ‘Mr Pharmacist’, a tribute to Manchester’s own ‘poet laureate’ Mark E. Smith of The Fall (The Fall notably covered this song by US garage band The Other Half). Apparently B & S learnt the song rather hurriedly especially for this Manchester date. The crowd members now depart, with Stuart thanking them individually as they leave the stage. It is touches like this that make Belle and Sebastian rather special as a band.

Belle and Sebastian, Manchester Bridgewater Hall, 12-03-18

Finishing the main set with ‘My Wandering Days Are Over’ from 1997’s classic debut ‘Tigermilk’ album the band leave the stage, coming back on a few minutes later after sustained audience applause for a two song encore. ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ features what Stuart describes as a ‘workout’ for the string section. Finale ‘The Party Line’ starts with the energetic Murdoch leaving the stage to reappear a couple of minutes later up in the gods on the top balcony singing with his cordless microphone. With that the party really is over with Stuart descending and shaking many more hands on the way down. There’s been quite a difference from that debut Manchester gig 20 years ago.

Belle and Sebastian, Manchester Bridgewater Hall, 12-03-18

Setlist: Dog On Wheels; Dirty Dream Number 2; We Were Beautiful; The Model; If She Wants Me; Sweet Dew Lee; I Want the World to Stop; The Fox in the Snow; (I Believe In) Travellin’ Light; The Same Star; Show Me the Sun; Sukie in the Graveyard; If You’re Feeling Sinister; The Boy with the Arab Strap; Mr Pharmacist; My Wandering Days Are Over. Encore: Dear Catastrophe Waitress; The Party Line.

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