Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER
Back in February, when it was announced that Andrew Bird and Belle & Sebastian were going to play the Mann Center in August, images of bespectacled sophisticates sitting cross legged, politely nodding along to plucked violin, expert whistling, and crooning Scottish voices commingling in refined harmonies sprang into my mind. I pictured it hot and muggy and figured that most of the audience would be fanning themselves off with that morning’s edition of The New York Times. I was excited to see Andrew Bird perform again, as he’d enlightened me with a labyrinth of sound engineered by his adept use of a loop pedal at a show during his tour for Armchair Acrophylla (2006). And not only did the prospect of Belle and Sebastian make me thirsty for tea and want to go thrift store shopping for tweed jackets with elbow pads, but I was also excited to see the band responsible for If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996), a beautiful chamber pop classic that takes you on a journey as satisfying as a well-written novel. If you haven’t heard it, open up a new tab, go to youtube or whatever, and put it on as you finish reading this. So now that you have a feel for the mindset I had going to the show, let me take you to Thursday night at the Mann Center, where my expectations were met with some unpleasant realities.
The first thing I noticed, before Andrew Bird even took the stage, was the same kind of Leslie speaker that he’d used to great effect when I’d last seen him perform. Don’t know what a Leslie speaker is? Don’t worry, I had to look up the name myself. It’s a functional speaker that looks like a set of bull horns made out of phonograph speakers, and when Bird steps on a pedal, it starts to spin, bending the sound waves. After I looked up the name of the speaker, which sat center stage, Bird walked out, accompanied by a guitarist, bassist, and drummer. It made sense to me that he was playing with a band considering that he’s started a family. The band is like an extension of the social life he’s grounded himself in with his family. Not to mention that on his latest album Are You Serious (2016), he’s joined throughout by multi-instrumentalist Blake Mills, and, on one track, by Fiona Apple. Even though, logically, the band made sense to me, it ultimately diluted what makes Bird great, namely the energy he creates through a tension born from balancing his unbelievable control of music with the manic energy of his whims. As Bird and the band left the stage, the Leslie speaker was spinning, stretching and bending the last few notes, making it sound like the last measure played in reverse, taking my mind back to the whimsical intimacy of Bird’s solo performances of yore.
After a twenty minute conversation about how Andrew Bird seems like a character out of Dickens novel, probably a chimney sweep, I started checking my watch because it took an hour for Belle & Sebastian to get on stage. And did you know that Belle & Sebastian isn’t just two people named Belle and Sebastian? Because I didn’t. There were eight or nine people on stage and fuck, I don’t even think any of them were named Belle or Sebastian. So I came to terms with the shattered image I’d developed of a man and woman recording If You’re Feeling Sinister over the course of a year living together in a cottage in the Scottish Highlands, and tried to wrap my mind around the reality of the group of performers on stage. There was a four-piece string section, a trumpet player, an acoustic guitarist, a bassist, and 76 trombones leading the big parade! All true, sans the trombones.
And man, if I were to follow the adage, “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” then I think I’d have one more sentence to write. Fulfilling the pre-conceived/sight unseen notion I had of Belle and Sebastian, the band played “The Fox in the Snow” and it was every bit as gorgeous as the recording, and somehow all the more perfect and somber being played in the summer. So, sorry to all the adults that leant me those wise words, I’m gonna’ say some things about why the performance didn’t work for me. I’ll do my best to not be mean, but I can’t be nice.
Musically, the nine musicians onstage were a little too loosey-goosey. The trumpet player blared almost every note, sounding like an angry goose with a microphone. The strings were okay, but didn’t seem essential, adding limited texture to the overall sound. But, really, the vocals were the shakiest, and this was most apparent during the attempt at male/female harmonies.
Possibly the most cringeworthy element of the show, though, was lead singer Stuart Murdoch’s bumbling stage banter. Let me just share one of his “jokes.” “Hey Philadelphia, I heard you had the Pope here recently, and that 200,000 attended.” He paused, and everyone in the crowd was like, “recently?” Bringing the joke home, he walked the plank, “And I heard you had the NFL draft here, as well, and 250,000 people showed up!” LOL. Ugh.
Sarcasm and jokes were how I got through the night, as the band showcased some unpleasant sojourns to styles lead by synth grooves. I don’t want to get into too much detail about how, near the end of the show, Stuart Murdoch went into the crowd to pull two dozen or so people on stage to dance to songs that I wouldn’t, without Murdoch’s insistence, ever pegged as dance tunes. Finally, for the last song, Belle & Sebastian returned to If You’re Feeling Sinister. I was really hoping for the swelling “Stars of Track and Field,” but, interestingly enough, they played “Get Me Away From Here,” which is exactly how I felt.
Leaving the show, I tried to make sense of how the artists responsible for Sinister could be the same that I’d just sat through. It got me thinking about the Tibetan monks who spend hours upon hours creating intricate sand paintings that consist of precise geometric shapes and patterns. At the end, the monks pray over the mandala before sweeping it away. Why do they do it? To internalize the truth that nothing is permanent. From a band that created If You’re Feeling Sinister, a true piece of great art, to the hokey professionals who played the Mann Center on Thursday night, I think it might be time for Belle & Sebastian to take a break from music and make a sand painting of their own. — DILLON ALEXANDER