It’s unusual for music to work equally well as a bedroom/headphone album and the soundtrack that gets a festival audience moving, but Belle & Sebastian is an unusual band, producing bookish but playful baroque pop somewhere on the spectrum between The New Pornographers and The Smiths. The quirky Glasgow-based act has amassed a cult following over their 18 years, and while they’ve never had an honest-to-goodness radio hit stateside, it’s not for lack of producing premium-quality pop.
Their 11-song, twilight hour set was a short tour of Belle & Sebastian’s nearly spotless back catalog and drew a big crowd to the RetailMeNot Stage, sandwiched between the main stages for the upcoming heavy-hitters, Beck and Outkast.
Complete with a greatest hits–worthy setlist, instrument swaps, fans on stage and wardrobe changes (well, sort of: Belle & Sebastian mastermind/frontman Stuart Murdoch shed a red flannel shirt to reveal a pressed white dress shirt and a black vest then later donned a stylish hat before showcasing some fancy footwork) it was the kind of eye-and-ear-pleasing spectacle you’d expect from a big-budget stadium show, not a bunch of middle-aged indie rockers with a cello player.
The highlight of the set was an uptempo, lively take on "The Boy with the Arab Strap." During the intro’s instantly recognizable feel-good organ, Murdoch hopped off stage to recruit a dozen or so dancers from the audience. After seven minutes or so of dancing, Murdoch reeled in his volunteer support close around the microphone and they snapped together as he continued singing and the music dropped out. It made for one of those sublime, goosebump-making moments that occur whenever whatever unseen forces in the air make for a perfect marriage of live music and crowd energy.
Murdoch is an effortless master of banter and was the most magnetic presence I saw on stage all day — flirting with the crowd, sitting with legs crossed on the stage’s edge, and pointing out that pretty much all songs are about sex. He also had some observations about Austin.
"Last time I was here none of those buildings were here," Murdoch said, pointing to the Austin skyline. "What the [expletive] happened? Are y’all having loads of children or something?"
On stage behind Murdoch and the 13 other members of the band was a backdrop with black-and-white shots of Belle & Sebastian’s eight full-length albums arranged in a grid. Later in the set it was replaced with a couple of music videos accompanying a pair of new songs, "Perfect Couples," which was sung by lead guitarist Stevie Jackson, and "The Tricks in Your Head Are Alive."
Setlist"Expectations""Another Sunny Day""The Stars of Track and Field""Funny Little Frog""Sukie In The Graveyard""Piazza, New York Catcher""The Tricks in Your Head Are Alive""Perfect Couples""I Didn’t See It Coming""The Boy with the Arab Strap""Legal Man"