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Tuesday, December 11 , 2018, 8:37 am | Fair 42º


Paul Mann: Belle & Sebastian Bring Style, Substance to the Bowl

The Scottish indie pop group Belle & Sebastian may be one of the best-kept secrets, at least in this country, in the indie pop world. Although the group has released no fewer than eight studio albums to much critical acclaim since they first formed in 1996, the group has had limited commercial success and is not a well-known name in pop music.

This was evidenced by the attendance at the show at the Santa Barbara Bowl last Wednesday. Despite being backed up by the Los Angeles-based, modern indie surf rock band Best Coast, the show was only able to fill about a third of the open air venue for their performances.

Best Coast played their afternoon set to a mostly empty house but soldiered on with an upbeat set showcasing the talents of the band’s two main members, lead singer and guitarist Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno.

The band plays what is best described as a modern feedback tinged version of surf music. The band, which recently came off an extended hiatus, played extensively on the music festival circuit in 2011 and 2012. They played a spirited 45-minute set to the delight of their small audience.

As dusk began to fall, a small army of about 14 musicians sauntered onto the stage for Bella & Sebastian’s set. The band plays music unlike any group in pop music today. With a large classical string session, they at times had a sound of the 1970s, something like the more well-known Polyphonic Spree in this country. But at other times they reflected more of an ‘80s sound like the English band The Smiths. Still other songs sounded more like classic ‘60s rock.

The intricate music paired with clever lyrics enraptured the small crowd full of enthusiastic fans as well as curious newcomers to their music. Since the band has not recorded a new album since 2010, they played an even mix of songs from their lengthy catalog.

The band opened with the synth drenched “Judy Is a Dick Slap.” After the first song, the animated frontman of the group, Stuart Murdoch, commented, “We’ve never been here before. This is beautiful!”

Before the night was out, he would pull an audience member out of the crowd to hold cue cards for him, stand on the shoulders of a member of the crowd and sing, prance about most of the filled section of the Bowl and invite audience members onto the stage to dance around him at the end of the set.

At one point in the show he asked the crowd if they wanted the band to play any requests. Then he jokingly said, “I actually thought by some miracle somebody would call out the song that we’re actually gonna play.” Then the band proceeded to play “The Stars of Track and Field.”

Then singer and guitarist Stevie Jackson took over the lead on “To Be Myself Completely.” Murdoch would often pause to take in the spectacular setting at the Bowl and joke about being a city boy not used to seeing the outdoors. At one point he asked rhetorically, “I think I can smell skunks, or is it just loads of weed?” Indeed it was a skunk.

Multi-instrumentalist Sarah Martin took a turn as lead singer on “I Can See Your Future” and added yet another musical layer to the mix.

It was during the final two songs of the set that the crowd was invited to swarm the stage in a dancing mass, during “The Boy with the Arab Strap” and “Legal Man.” The band had time for one encore before the 10 p.m. curfew and tossed beach balls into the crowd before they played. Murdoch smirked and commented that when the band started in 1996, they never imagined having their name emblazoned on beach balls.

The show seemed to please longtime fans of the band and may have won many new listeners to their music. While they might not be a household name, it seems that Belle & Sebastian will be making great music for a long time to come.

Set List

Judy Is a Dick Slap
I’m a Cuckoo
Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie
The Stars of Track and Field
Dirty Dream Number Two
To Be Myself Completely
Lord Anthony
If She Wants Me
Piazza, New York Catcher
I Can See Your Future
If You’re Feeling Sinister
Your Cover’s Blown
I Don’t Love Anyone
The Boy with the Arab Strap
Legal Man
Judy and the Dream of Horses
Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributing writer. The opinions expressed are his own.

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