Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

The post-Jeepster Belle & Sebastian come full circle at Somerset House

22 July 2015, 14:17 | Written by Joe Goggins

The last time Belle & Sebastian played Somerset House, in the summer of 2004, they were finally finding their feet again after a few years of relative turbulence; after 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant - the first record of their career to meet with generally lukewarm reviews - they left original label Jeepster for a bigger indie in Rough Trade, and Stuart David and Isobel Campbell both left the fold - the former amicably, and the latter less so.

That period of upheaval is the point at which the group’s career split into two; from 2003 onwards, their sound became at once more experimental and more polished, and their rate of return - previously prodigious - slowed dramatically.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the band have been in slow decline since Dear Catastrophe Waitress, which featured their first flirtations with out-and-out pop and - in some cases (“Stay Loose”, for instance) - flickers of disco. Whilst it’s certainly true that no LP since 1998’s The Boy with the Arab Strap has matched the consistency of the first couple, on which the quality of Stuart Murdoch’s songwriting was so high that, in a Pitchfork documentary, guitarist Stevie Jackson made not-unreasonable comparisons with Paul Simon, the standard has remained consistently high and - arguably - at points more interesting in its variety.

Eleven years to the day since that last Somerset House show, it feels as if things are coming full circle tonight; January’s Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance marked the band’s deepest foray into the dancier territory first heralded on Waitress, while also cementing their penchant for The Life Pursuit’s glam-pop leanings and - with tracks like tonight’s starkly personal opener, “Nobody’s Empire” - nodding to both the sound and themes of the Jeepster years.

This evening's setlist pays a little more attention to that period than setlists on May’s UK tour did; a rare back-to-back airing of “The Stars of Track and Field” and “Seeing Other People” is an early treat for the purists, to be repeated next June when If You’re Feeling Sinister is played in its entirety at the Royal Albert Hall. “Women’s Realm” and “Simple Things” are amongst the more obscure Jeepster era cuts to make the grade, but the nods to tonight’s setting, dead-centre in the capital, are altogether more eye-catching; the gorgeous “Mornington Crescent”, named for the then-defunct Tube stop, is played for what Murdoch claims is only the second-ever time, whilst “A Century of Fakers” - arguably the pick of the Jeepster non-album material, a title for which there’s no shortage of contenders - is a mid-set highlight; it was written, according to Murdoch as he introduces it, on a train back up from London in the band’s early days.

The two nights they played here in 2004 saw them mine that reserve of singles and EP tracks far more deeply than tonight - serious rarities “String Bean Jean”, “Belle and Sebastian” and “You Made Me Forget My Dreams” made appearances - but they no longer need to with another decade’s worth of album material under their collective belt; Write About Love standout “I Didn’t See It Coming”, which remains Sarah Martin’s finest songwriting contribution, is well worth a place tonight, and “Perfect Couples”, from Peacetime, is a revelation. Jackson introduced it almost apologetically at shows last year, but now it’s become a psychedelia-tinged behemoth, running seven or eight minutes - it’s the best song he’s written in years.

Even by their own standards, this show feels like a little bit of an event; the usual trick of bringing fans up from the crowd to dance with the group for a couple of songs has been expanded, with fifty audience members sounded out well ahead of the show to join the band throughout tonight’s gig. It’s a neat touch, especially given that the band’s interaction with the fans has always felt genuine, not a gimmick - Murdoch looked borderline distraught at the yawning chasm between himself and the crowd on the Other Stage at Glastonbury. A ramshackle cover of “A Town Called Malice”, in acknowledgement of the exhibition honouring The Jam currently open at the House, is another charming turn, recalling similarly impromptu past takes on the likes of “The Boys Are Back in Town” in Belfast, or Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” in Boston. Belle & Sebastian have come a long way not only from those early years of sparse touring schedules and technical disasters - like those at Manchester’s Town Hall way back in 1997 - but from the turmoil of the early noughties, too; this is a live show befitting their reputation as an indie national treasure.

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