(Photos, 2/27/06 by Carina Mastrocola; words, 2/28/06 by Eli Anderson)
For '90s indie teens, Belle & Sebastian were -- make that are -- the most important band in the world. Educated guess: for most of those in attendance at a sold-out Avalon last night, 1996's If You're Feeling Sinister has at some point been the go-to soundtrack for mopey Sundays.
B&S arrived on the heels of The Life Pursuit, their seventh release, also their strongest, and a wild growth spurt for the band. Entering a new phase of their career, they've married the broader arraignments of the Trevor Horn-produced Dear Catastrophe Waitress with the fey character studies of the early albums, bouncing between influences as disparate as '70s glam and Broadway musicals, but with an emotional grounding that only twee-pop torchbearers can provide.
It was clear from the outset on Tueday that this tour has massive sentimental value for the audience. Hints: people screaming at their favorite lyrics, repeating phrases like "this is the best song ever written," and generally fawning over anything that anyone on stage did. For the most part, thankfully, this devotion was expressed in a library-grade silence -- a vital consideration given the band's sub-conversation-level stage sound. Even when B&S were augmented by an eighth member, a misplaced sneeze might have drowned out the entire proceedings.
The newer, more aggressive material was somewhat toned down. The rumbling bass of "White Collar Boy" was there, but absent the beefy guitars you hear on the album. Still, the new songs were well received, and the Byrds-y "Another Sunny Day" even warranted chorus of rowdy cheers. The setlist was peppered with cult-rewarding rarities and crowd favorites. They played "A Century of Fakers' for "the first time . . . since the personnel change" -- that is, for the first time since the departure of founding naif Isobel Campbell, now off galavanting with (ex) Queens and (eu)geniuses. A faithful rendition of the electro-pop oddity "Electronic Renaissance" from Tigermilk prompted guitarist/vocalist Stevie Jackson to break in to an impromptu Sprockets-esque dance recital.
Jackson's endless enthusiasm acts as an important counterpoint to the rest of the band's laconic stage presence. While Stuart Murdoch was clearly the ringleader -- the guy doling out droll stage banter and handling the lead vocals for most of the 70-minute set -- Jackson was the frontman, his jerky dancing, crisp suit, and wild hand gesticulations giving the band exactly the theatrical focal point that the newer material begs for. In the end, though, the highlight of the evening was the music: specifically, the considerably-more-lush-than-on-record renditions of material from Sinister. In these arrangements, the band's endearingly-slight catalogue registered as grand and definitive statements. "Judy and the Dream of Horses" rose out of its mumbling acoustic shell into an absolute celebration, and a set-closing "Get Me Away From Here I'm Drying" rousted the crowd into a rousing sing-a-long.
-- Eli Anderson