Belle & Sebastian : London Royal Albert Hall

Murky sound can't completely dampen the full force of Belle & Sebastian...

Almost three years ago, just up the road from this classy joint, things didn’t go well for Belle & Sebastian. A late appearance and dodgy sound at Shepherd’s Bush Empire resulted in bad vibes aplenty, and a nagging suspicion has lingered that these ‘cult heroes’ were just chancers taking the piss. The fact that it’s taken them this long to set foot in the ‘music biz’ capital of the UK suggest that either a) the wounds have taken a while to heal or b) it’s because Stuart Murdoch & Co (there’s too damn many of them, but we’ll come to that) don’t feel there’s any ghost worth exorcising.

Well, tonight they care. The grapevine’s been buzzing with news of the tour up till now – a happy, energised collective rocking like they’ve never rocked before. And when the bolstered band (16 at one count, though there’s a lot of coming and going) saunter on and launch into the western-tinged ‘La Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’ it’s clear they mean business – it’s delivered beautifully and crisply, a clear signal of intent. They then proceed to run through a 21-song set in an hour-and-a-half. No pissing about for an eternity, looking like they’ve never set foot on stage before. Gold star for effort anyway.

Unfortunately tonight Belle & Sebastian‘s problems are not of their own making. The dodgy acoustics mean that, although the setting is undeniably impressive to look at, you’re never gonna sound your best here.

The group try manfully to overcome the problem – ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’ sounds huge, though it is filled out by guest vocalist Monica Queen, and the Stax-tinged ‘Don’t Leave The Light On, Baby’ is sharp, sultry and damn sexy.

The punchy brass numbers fare well too, bolstered by the extra bods – Stevie Jackson’s ‘The Wrong Girl’ is a stand-out, strident and uplifting. But much of the set (a great deal of which is lifted from the band’s most recent album ‘Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant’) follows a familar pattern – intro strikes up, crowd react in wild but extremely polite appreciation, crowd get a bit doleful when they realise the band might as well be playing in a tin drum. ‘My Wandering Days Are Over’, Murdoch’s heavenly recognition of domesticity, turns depressingly murky, as does the jaunty pop of ‘Mayfly’. But it’s to the band’s credit that they’re still curiously compelling.

And they’re having fun too. About midway through Murdoch confronts a pair of ‘hecklers’, surely (hopefully) based on those old blokes in ‘The Muppets’. They’re dressed in comedy wigs and beards. They’re mic’ed up. Oh, it’s a big elaborate prank! Of course! One of them suggests to Murdoch that a fan sing the next song, and a young lady volunteers. She then proceeds to make a decent stab at ‘The State I’m In’ (after initially suggesting covering Europe’s mighty ‘The Final Countdown’, but the group just couldn’t master the great anthem). And when a wag in the crowd shouts ‘Judas!’ in reference to the Bob Dylan-goes-electric-heckling incident at the ‘Albert Hall’, Jackson replies quick as a flash: “I dinnae believe ye”. Oh, and Murdoch’s written a sentimental song about his car. It’s called ‘I Love My Car’.

What a bunch of pranksters, eh? But it’s just a bit of a laugh. They’re up for it alright. And because of that, it’s easy to raise a smile when their heroes finish with a rousing cover of Sly Stone’s ‘People Everyday’.

Apart from those old blokes. They were still complaining at the end.

Alan Woodhouse