SIXTEENHUNDRED: Belle and Sebastian light up the Skyline

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First Posted: 7/15/2013

“Philly, you seem like a good kind of indie, kind of Belle and Sebastian town,” cooed Stuart Murdoch, frontman for Glasgow’s iconic indie band.

“I got a great view of the skyline from here; this is a great place,” admired Murdoch, looking out over Philadelphia from the aptly named Skyline Stage at the Mann Center in Fairmount Park. Belle and Sebastian were the first to play the 2013 summer stage on July 10. Murdoch fluttered more Philly tidbits, talking about news of a pack of dogs chasing park visitors. Gesturing to the vast band, he smiled, “There’s enough of us here. We can take a pack of wild Chihuahuas.”

Openers Yo La Tengo also integrated Fairmount Park into their set. Singer Ira Kaplan gazed across the faces of fans sitting in the grass in the waning light before calmly suggesting, “Let’s sing a couple’a park songs, picnic numbers,” and began “Big Day Coming,” a duet with Georgia Hubley. The trio of multi-instrumentalists – Kaplan, Hubley, and James McNew – have played together for decades, mastering their many between-song instrumental switches with perfectly smooth transitions.

Yo La Tengo’s set started with hits, including “Autumn Sweater” and “Stockholm Syndrome,” and ended, in true YLT fashion, with plenty of reverb. Kaplan wished the crowd, “Good dusk, everybody.” The sky had evened to darkness by the time spotlights searched the stage and colorful lights drenched the Belle and Sebastian backdrop, likening it to one of their many monotoned album covers.

Belle and Sebastian put on an exceptional performance, playing across nearly two decades of discography with about a dozen musicians onstage, including a string quartet backing core members Murdoch, Bobby Kildea, Stevie Jackson, Chris Geddes, Mick Cooke, Richard Colburn, and Sarah Martin.

Martin’s breathy voice knocks first before entering a song and quickly charms its way into the sway of shoulders, adding a significant whimsy to the enchanting band. Stevie Jackson’s rounded, droll vocals jaunt through early generations of classic Brit pop, a perfect balance to Martin and Murdoch’s wispy warblings in the Belle and Sebastian vocal trinity.

Blue light flooded the stage, setting the scene for the somber “Lord Anthony,” off 2003’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress.” Stuart navigated the down-tempo tune with lanky strides across the stage, stopping to prop his foot on a speaker, hand on hip, dipping to an occasional lunge. As the strings and vocals built, Stuart ran a hand over his forehead, casually knocking his song-specific porkpie hat to the floor. Stillness took the stage in anticipation of the singer’s hop into the audience, where he asked a fan to apply eyeliner according to the lyrics. After the theatrics, the stage brightened with the bounce of fan favorites “Seeing Other People” and “Funny Little Frog.”

“This is a song about two American cities – not Philadelphia, sorry,” apologized Murdoch. “But they’re in the same league, if you know what I mean,” he hinted before the strum of their hit single, “Piazza, New York Catcher.” The tune was slowed down to a gentle Americana version, complete with a harmonica bit by Stevie and a sweet sing-along gestured on by Stuart.

“Your Cover’s Blown,” a catchy EP treasure, brought undeniable beats that are likely still rattling around in fans’ heads. It will be featured in the forthcoming “Third Eye Centre,” a new release of rarities akin to “Push Barman to Open Old Wounds.” Having warmed up the venue’s dance moves, Stuart announced, “We’re going to do a short song and a long song, and in between, we’re going to have someone dance.” Several someones danced onstage to the short song, “Simple Things,” which led straight to the long song, “The Boy with the Arab Strap,” warming up the audience and allowing the dancers to settle into the clap-along, sway-along songs before launching the lively “Legal Man.”

The onstage crowd bounced and spun about, weaving between bandmates while the psychedelic vibe was enlivened by keys and bongos. Stevie Jackson’s sass-factor rose with his right hand, as if nudged skyward by his swiveling hips, then, in an instant, his hands were out front at eye level, parting across the plane in a deliciously ‘60s move.

After the song ended and dancers begrudgingly shuffled offstage, Stuart shared what a fan had offered him – that her sister married a Scotsman named Neil Young. Stevie began strumming a Young tune. “Go on, Stevie, give us something,’ nudged Stuart. The pair shifted gears and announced that Stevie would instead play Neil Diamond, which, for a few bars, he did, before hushing the crowd with B&S classic “Judy and the Dream of Horses.” Hypnotized, fans whispered lyrics along with Stuart, swaying under the spill of red evoking the album cover of 1996’s “If You’re Feeling Sinister.” Following a brief exit, the Glasgow crew surprised fans with their first encore playing of “Dirty Dream Number Two” off “The Boy with the Arab Strap.”

“Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” another song off the beloved “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” started sleepy and swelled to a buzz. Stuart’s soft repetition of “Get me away, I’m dying / Oh, I’m dying,” was joined by the echo of the crowd as the final verses flickered into the night with Fairmount Park’s dancing lightning bugs.