I hadn't seen Belle & Sebastian live since their first-ever American shows at the Angel Orensanz Center back in September 1997. What I remember from those shows -- apart from the second show was so good, the hair stood up on the back of my neck -- was a endearingly ramshackle band whose shy lead singer couldn't remember the words half the time, so the lead guitarist sang for him.
Stuart Murdoch isn't shy anymore; now quite the cheeky frontman, dancing, telling jokes, flirting with the audience... but still forgetting the words. Luckily, Stevie Jackson (looking dapper in a mod-ish suit) knows them all and filled in the missing lines, not missing a beat. (If Murdoch is the heart of Belle & Sebastian, Jackson is the backbone.)
The setlist was a bit weird but much to my liking. They played: almost all of If You're Feeling Sinister; about half of the new album (but no "Blues are Still Blue" or "Song for Sunshine" or "We Are the Sleepyheads"); two songs each from Tigermilk ("The State That I am In" and one of my least favorite B&S songs, "Electronic Renaissance") and Dear Catastrophe Waitress ("I'm a Cukoo" and "If You Find Yourself Caught in Love"); plus "Jonathan David," "Dog on Wheels," "A Century of Fakers" and "The Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner. The Boy with the Arab Strap and Fold You Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant were skipped entirely. Fine by me. Much to my very happy surprise, they played my favorite b-side too -- the epic, funky "You're Cover's Blown."
During that speedy middle part of "Your Cover's Blown," Murdoch stage dove and sang much of the song while surfing the crowd. He also pulled six girls from the audience on-stage to do some Rockettes-style dancing to "If You Find Yourself Caught in Love." There are still some ramshackle moments but the band -- all eight of them -- has become pretty tight, and with strings, vibes, and keyboards, there were some swoon-worthy moments.
There were also some weird moments. The $6 bud cans didn't seem to be slowing down the crowd's consumption and reports from the floor talked of a lot of yelling between drunk girls, resulting in at least one fight. Also, two people fainted, which stopped the show momentarily at one point. I have a feeling the Friday show will be more of a party.
This was my first visit to the Nokia, which I know has divided people, but I thought the sound was clear, volume loud enough and some of the best sightlines options at any place in the city. The light show was perfect, not flashy, but supremely classy. If you're close enough to the stage, it would be hard to take a bad picture here, even with a crappy camera-phone. Bands that like to rawk might not sound good there, but for this kind of show the Nokia is ideal. Plus, they pipe the mix from the board into the bathrooms so you don't miss a thing!
Openers New Pornographers played a good but not great set. The band just isn't the same without Neko Case. Still, "The Laws Have Changed," "The Jessica Numbers," "From Blown Speakers" and finale "Sing Me Spanish Techno."
When the New Pornographers finished their set, Carl Newman took the mike and said "It's not often I get to share the stage with one of my heroes, but tonight is one of those times." There were murmurs as to who the surprise guests might be. Carl didn't give the crowd much time to guess -- "Please welcome, all the way from Germany, A Matter of Trust!" The Nokia audience clapped in bemusement as A Matter of Trust took the stage and proceeded to pound out workmanlike cover of Billy Joel's Springsteen-esque 1986 rocker "A Matter of Trust." Though supposedly German, the drummer looked suspiciously like funnyman Todd Barry (who pleaded with the crowd, "don't blog this!") and the singer bore a striking vocal resemblance to Jon Benjamin. (They did the same thing at a couple of Yo La Tengo's Hanukkah shows too, apparently.) Like a high school garage band that doesn't know when to quit, "A Matter of Trust" (and A Matter of Trust) went on for what seemed like 15 minutes, going from funny to not funny and then back to being funny. Weird how that works.
Photo swiped from aphrodite-in-nyc's Flickr photostream.
I spied Matthew Fluxblog in the upper bleachers. Chris and his Music Snobbery was also there. So was Waved Rumor, and nearly every indie rock comedian that calls NYC his home.