The Palais Theatre
Arriving at the support band start time of 7:45, I have to re-check that I’m at the right venue. The Palais seems totally deserted. Inside it’s not that different. Is it possible that fans of Scotland’s finest sextet have moved on to fresher sounds? Was my friend right when he claimed, “they’ve been shit for years. Eighty per cent of their good stuff is from the 90s.”? Was the combined cost of ticket and babysitter just too much for Melbourne’s punters? By the time local guitar pop combo Totally Mild are halfway through their set, trading banter and making a joyful noise with tracks off their new album Her, the Largest Seated Theatre in Australia™ is at about ten per cent capacity. Regardless of the energy and charisma that singer Liz Mitchell channels into the band’s twisting, unsettling songs, the audience give little back. That the rest of the band seem to have brought all the energy of a Friday afternoon at the day job to their Friday evening show doesn’t help either, but songs like Today, Tonight, From One Another and the closing Down Together are so good they barely need to be sold at all.
Then, as if on cue, and with just ten minutes to showtime, the Palais fills with enthusiastic fans, many decked in stripy tops, some with their children, more with less hair than they had last time Belle and Sebastian played here, in 2015. A brief nod from energetic frontman Stuart Murdoch, and we’re back in 1997, with the first song from their first EP, Dog on Wheels. It’s a winning introduction, and from there the energy level only rises. I’m a Cuckoo, Step Into My Office Baby (complete with an in-song reference to Bob Hawke, “he’s one of the good ones, right?”) and some quizzing of songwriter Stevie Jackson over the inspiration for a song about internal office romance, and the band make it almost impossible to dislike them. Twenty years of success hasn’t stolen the humility that made their music so adored by introspective teenagers and lovers of folk pop (or, as they’re referred to in the film High Fidelity, “old sad bastard music”). Murdoch and co are onto a winning formula, and very good at seeming like they don’t know it. Their latest release, a collection of three EPs with the unassuming title of How to Solve Our Human Problems, is mined for some of it’s more danceable tunes: the low key urging of We Were Beautiful, the bossa disco of Sweet Dew Lee and the instantly catchy Poor Boy, the song that brought relief to the many fans afraid that the magic might have disappeared.
Unlike their last concert at the Palais, in which their new and not especially strong album Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance dominated the setlist, tonight the energy is brighter and we span time with the band. Jumping between decades, from Murdoch in his early twenties writing for himself (Stars of Track and Field), the band cocking a wry eye to the mainstream (Legal Man), a love song from Murdoch to his wife (Piazza, New York Catcher), late-career dancefloor bangers (The Party Line) and a brand new song “we’ve only played once before”, (There is an Everlasting Song). It’s all gloriously familiar and we’re all on board for all of it, up and down in our seats as the energy demands it.
The band are obviously enjoying themselves, too, though only Murdoch is physical enough to show it which he does with every opportunity, clambering onto speakers, sitting at the front of the stage and donning a cut-off t-shirt with the Australian flag on the front. Stevie Jackson remains po-faced, even when cracking the odd dry joke, Chris “Beans” Geddes stays focused on his keyboards, Sarah Martin keeps a caring eye on Stuart and bassist Bobby Kildea stays a beacon of cool in the shadows on stage left. After closing their set with a version of Judy and the Dream of Horses that moves effortlessly from intimate to rousing, we call them back out for a three song encore, Murdoch describes as “something we don’t usually do”. After a quick huddle they elect to go with “a deep cut, a B-side, a song we haven’t played in years. You might have to help me with the lyrics”. And it’s true, he has forgotten some of the many lines of Photo Jenny, and so have we, but it matters not. The thrill of hearing something unexpected yet familiar from a discography as vast as Belle and Sebastian’s is a gift to a theatre crammed with fans.
Just like the venue filling at the last minute, with tonight’s show Belle and Sebastian throw off suggestions that they’ve got nothing new to offer, or that over 2,000 Melbournians won’t come out to see a band that was so important to them, and that they’re more than capable of winning over a new generation of fans.