It was something like six years between my first two Belle and Sebastian shows, and on the cold bus ride to Bristol tonight I calculated it was something like four years since I’d last seen them. Across the numerous performances in between my first desperate dash to London and last time, at the same venue as this evening, they’ve variously sparkled and plain sucked. Tonight, quite a bit felt like it had changed – I was struggling up to Bristol from the new office in Clevedon for starters, and a cold and strange journey it was too – not really knowing where I was, which was an unusual experience for me. The bonus was to be dropped directly outside the Colston Hall – it’s new spacious entrance building full of city types enjoying jazz and cocktails. Once inside, despite a bit of a refit it was essentially the same municipal concert hall it had always been. Found a seat in the corner and settled in for the support act Daniel Kitson and Gavin Osborn. I’d been prepared to be unhappy with this – a story teller and a singer performing together sounded a little bit too staged and corny for starters. What I wasn’t prepared for was the razor sharp delivery and witty, clever prose which Kitson provided. Gavin Osborn’s songs worked too – not just illustrating or adding colour to the story, but moving on the narrative. This allowed a fairly complex story to be told with genuine pace and humour. Kitson looked like Allen Ginsberg but oddly sounded like Dave Gorman, whilst Obsorn’s gently folky voice and guitar were ideally suited to the format. The audience who bothered to wander in were in parts, utterly delighted by the whole performance, as was I. A great choice of support act.
So, with the lights up, and disappointingly the tradition of girls selling ice cream now dispensed with here, I surveyed the audience. They were a mixed bunch – a fair number older folks like myself, who’d probably grown up with the band and were genuinely eager to see their old heroes once again. Mixed in were a larger group of younger people – far too cool for their own good, they kept their scarves on indoors and posed, hands on angled hips whilst chatting and guffawing about tuition fees and tweeting casually on their ‘phones. I was of course tapping away on mine too – answering work emails – I have clearly aged a lot in the last four years.
So, Belle and Sebastian took to the stage in their usual ramshackle way. A full string section again added to the sound, and seemed to bode well for the evening – except that they were largely inaudible amongst the flabby sound. Somewhere in the first few songs, a shift in the balance seemed to have occurred… Always by far the most conciously ‘cool’ member of the band, Stevie Jackson seemed to be stepping forward to lead the proceedings. This left a slightly sick and rather subdued Stuart to verbally spar with him and not managing much in the way of engagement with the audience. Luckily, the recent record didn’t get too much of an airing, with only the strongest few songs making an appearance – “I Didn’t See It Coming” and “I Want The World To Stop” retaining their glamour, whilst “Write About Love” sunk without trace – all too easy and not at all convincing. This betrayed the strange set of song choices in the set. With a now extensive back catalogue to plunder, a good few oddities were unearthed to varying effect. Luckily this archaeological dig also provided some highlights including “Dog on Wheels” and “The Stars of Track and Field”.
As the long and rather slow set dragged into it’s final stages, I found myself getting frustrated with the band. This group of people have inspired such genuine admiration in me and many thousands of others over the years, but seemed to coasting. It was of course, the end of a very long tour. It was also clear that many of them weren’t feeling great. Only Stevie, ever professional but strangely turning into Bob Dylan circa 1966 with his wild curly hair, managed to retain any of the geeky and shy star quality which this bunch usually exude. After a disappointly rushed and subdued “If You Find Yourself Caught In Love” – which had been so fantastic here last time – the band managed a pretty decent take on “Sleep The Clock Around” before disappearing from the stage. As they shuffled wearily back to kick off an encore with “Judy and The Dream of Horses” I shuffled away too, to catch the train home earlier than I needed to. It’s hard to tell if I’ve grown out of Belle and Sebastian or whether, tonight at least, they’ve just stopped caring themselves. This was patently the least impressive they’ve been since the achingly shy and quiet Shepherd’s Bush Empire gig. I felt weary and old heading home, and rather like I’d had a silly argument about nothing with an old friend. Lets hope we can make up sometime soon?