“I was walking down Broadway earlier today, singing to myself…” Belle and Sebastian guitarist and singer Stevie Jackson wasted no time in diving into the banter with his bandmates onstage at Radio City Music Hall.
“Oh, and what were you singing, Stevie?” retorted de facto bandleader Stuart Murdoch with the chirpy glibness of a classic vaudevillian setup.
“It was Guys and Dolls.”
“Oh, which part?” And with that cue, Jackson let out a mighty rendition of a tune from that famous musical as a punchline. In reply, if not in competition, Murdoch recalled the song he had been singing earlier, and he, as well as the band, launched into “Feelin’ Groovy,” the breezy old Simon and Garfunkel hit. The audience lapped that one up, joining in and singing along.
This second date on Belle and Sebastian’s summer tour through the U.S. in support of their ninth album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, brought the Scottish troupe to Radio City Music Hall for a sold-out show. Girls in Peacetime, their first album in five years, was released in January, so perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that this show felt much more like a career retrospective than an album promotion, as though the new songs had already found their position in the Belle and Sebastian story alongside the old ones.
What with their jovial banter, a big band swelling the core sextet to as many as fourteen at one point, a quartet of choreographed dancers, and a video backdrop of visuals that ranged from Bond-like silhouettes to full-on busy vignettes, the performance felt more like a Broadway musical than a pop show. But then Murdoch and co. have a knack for turning the ditty into an epic statement. The theatrics, however, didn’t overreach, and struck a playful chord, avoiding overindulgence.
Main singer and songwriter Murdoch was mostly center stage and a focal point — not that he kept still much. He wore a long-sleeved Breton shirt and even a jacket, which he lost after the first song. (Such is summer in Glasgow, not New York City.) He donned a pork pie hat for some songs. He’s among the springiest and sprightliest of frontmen, bopping about and dancing in place and chatting away. “Let’s have a party!” he announced, launching into “The Party Line,” a funky techno-inflected number from Girls in Peacetime rooted in Latin beats and disco-pop. “Jump to the beat of the party line,” he urgently sang, giving the song a political edge, but also noting the sheep-like quality of the dance music world. He strummed at an acoustic guitar while Jackson etched out lines on an electric for the percussive “The State I Am In” (from 1996’s Tigermilk).
Despite a quartet of violinists, a cellist, a trumpet player, recorders, bagpipes (on “Sleep the Clock”), keyboards, guitars (as many as three at once at one point), the sound even at its richest kept a lightness to it. Much of that was due to Murdoch, whose reedy voice sat in an enigmatically central place. Not that he was there to indulge his considerable singer-songwriter side: Whether it was bopping to the bouncy “The Boy With the Arab Strap” or beautifully duetting with violin player and vocalist Sarah Martin on “I Didn’t See It Coming,” he was there to play around.
It seemed the wildest of ideas when Jackson suggested channeling the Grateful Dead, but “Perfect Couples” became a big psychedelic jam, and a darkly sinister one at that, with Murdoch beating out a cha-cha-cha rhythm on bongos.
The four dancers joined in on a handful of songs, wearing outfits of the kind director Wes Anderson might come up with — sort of retro, normal, and everyday, but somehow quirky — and mimed out the story of the song at hand (waitress aprons and a disgruntled attitude in “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” for instance).
Toward the end of the main set, an invited stage invasion of a dozen or more folks, all wearing laminates indicating an insider connection, seemed to blur band and audience. But when one hapless fan clambered up to dance with them, he was promptly manhandled offstage.
For the encore, Murdoch bounced back onstage saying, “Thank you for having us back, guys,” with all the naïve chirpiness of Mickey Rooney proclaiming the show must go on. And it did with Girls in Peacetime’s “Play for Today,” named for a BBC TV series that brought high art into living rooms, which was a duet with Dum Dum Girls leader Dee Dee Penny, who sings on the record. Dipping way back to 1996, “Judy and the Dream of Horses” was rendered as a bop-a-go-go number, with trumpet leading this mini orchestra to its grand finale and a shiny, happy ending. Belle and Sebastian: The Musical, anyone?