While they may be approaching their 20th anniversary, and find themselves in the middle of a gruelling eight-month world tour, Glasgow’s indie heroes Belle & Sebastian don’t want for enthusiasm as they hit the stage at the Symphony Hall. Refreshed following a day spent walking the Birmingham Canal and checking out the latest city-centre redevelopment (Stuart Murdoch reassures us, “you’re nearly there”), the band, bolstered by the familiar horde of auxiliary players, launches into opener Nobody’s Empire with zeal. As on its parent album, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, the track offers us a new level of intimacy, as Murdoch recounts his years spent laid low with chronic fatigue syndrome.
As with all the new songs tonight, the performance is nothing if not accomplished, each track furnished with its own bespoke video backdrop. The domestic angst of Stevie Jackson’s Perfect Couples bursts with personality, while for The Power Of Three, Sarah Martin eschews her familiar wispiness for an uncharacteristically commanding vocal turn.
New songs aside, tonight’s distinctly old-school, with every other track dating back at least 12 years. If She Wants Me has never been more seductive, There’s Too Much Love never more persuasive, Jonathan David never more bittersweet. Yet the biggest highlights are the very oldest songs. Debut album Tigermilk was a ragtag college project recorded while the band members were still strangers, with follow-up If You’re Feeling Sinister scarcely less lo-fi, so it’s a special treat when the all-conquering modern-day ensemble take on the old classics. We Rule The School is newly emboldened yet no less sad, while My Wandering Days Are Over and closing gambit Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying both feel like a lap of honour.
Murdoch also found time on his day off to attend a service at Birmingham Cathedral, where the minister lamented the general election result. While Belle & Sebastian’s back catalogue may be lacking in the explicitly political, Murdoch’s response comes in the only way he knows – shrugging his shoulders and inviting audience members onto the stage to shake their stuff. After all, girls in peacetime want to dance.
Words: Dan Cooper Gavin