Beards, Blazers & Glasses: Belle and Sebastian & The Shins
A conversation between a 15-year old Passion of the Weiss and the 24-year old incarnation, on the way to the Belle and Sebastian & Shins concert at the Hollywood Bowl last Thursday night:
15 year-old POW: So what are you doing tonight?
24 year-old POW: I'm going to see the Shins and Belle and Sebastian play at the Hollywood Bowl?
15 year-old POW: First Boy Least Likely To and now a Belle & Sebastian show? When did you become so fucking twee?
24 year old-POW: What are you talking about? They're two really outstanding bands. You should be more open-minded.
15 year old-POW: So like are Wu-Tang opening or something and you're just trying to mess with me?
24 year old-POW: No, the Shins.
15 year-old POW: You mean that band from Garden State? Why don't you just move to the eastside, grow a beard, get a pair of glasses and thrown on a blazer? What a pussy.
24-Year old self: You know I'm 40 lbs. more than you are, I'd watch what you're saying 15-year old Jeff.
But despite the pig-headedness and rap obsessiveness of my 15-year old self, I completely understand why people wouldn' t necessarily like the album versions of both Belle and Sebastian and The Shins.
After all, even their All Music Guide biography calls Belle and Sebastian "precious," and their second and most critically acclaimed album "If You're Feeling Sinister," is outstanding but a complete downer. It's not exactly the sort of music you put on while you and your friends are drinking before going out on a Saturday night. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
And as for the Shins, they're also a solid band, but now that Zach Braff and the Garden State soundtrack made them into "yupster/sorority girl" icons, there's something a little off-putting about telling people how into The Shins you are. It's the kind of admission that makes you want to add, "but like I've totally been into them before Garden State." Damn you Braff. Is anything sacred?
But despite any reasons that one might have for not liking either band, last Thursday's show proved them to be two of the most polished and outstanding indie pop bands in the world today. Chances are you already know this fact, but nevertheless, seeing the two bands play at the Hollywood Bowl, as the sun set against the Hollywood Hills, with Belle and Sebastian backed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, could've left even the most cynical observer blown away.
Headlining the largest concert they've ever played in the United States, Belle and Sebastian, really surprised me. I hadn't expected them to be nearly as good as they were. I'd never seen them before, plus I'd heard that The Shins' live show was mediocre at best, so I was tempted to skip the show altogether, as the ticket prices were steep. Luckily, Dan "Floating Away" Nieman, had an extra box seat ticket, offered it to me, and the next thing I knew I was arguing with my 15-year old self while fighting traffic to get to the Bowl.
To be honest, coming into the show I wasn't exactly a Belle and Sebastian obsessive, only owning "Sinister" and their latest album "The Life Pursuit," which at this point looks like a lock to make my top 10 list of Best Albums of the year. Die-hard Belle and Sebastian devotees might regard the album as a major disappointment, but as far as I'm concerned The Life Pursuit's only problem was it's release date. Somehow, the band got mixed up and released the summer album of the year in late Winter.
But no matter when they decide to release their albums, seeing them live made it very clear that Belle and Sebastian are a great live band. Stuart Murdoch, the band's lead singer, has undeniable charisma (way more than I'd expected) in person and the ability to engage even the most jaded audience member. Constantly joking with the crowd and always energetic, Murdoch is an unlikely rock star: rail-thin and dresed foppishly but sharp, he looked more like a newspaper reporter from the 1940's.
But sometimes on-stage, it all comes down to confidence and magnetism. And though Murdoch's lyrics might often contain dark themes, he displayed none of these morose tendencies on-stage, bouncing across the wooden Bowl floorbeams, strutting across the catwalk out in front of the pit, even rushing into the crowd to ask for "mascara and a dress" (it made more sense at the time). During "Jonathan David," Murdoch even brought a girl on stage to dance with him, calling her "baby bee-yotch," a name which the Belle and Sebastian groupie was only too happy to take. On another note, who knew Belle and Sebastian had groupies?
As for the performance itself, the band sounded great. The lyrics came out of Murdoch's voice clear and crisp, while the Philharmonic-backed music sounded lush and rich. Drawing heavily on material from Belle and Sebastian's middle albums, "Dear Catastrophe Waitress," was the most heavily represented in the set, and even though I'd never heard of the songs before, they sounded great to me.
In fact, the band only played one track (the title track) from "If You're Feeling Sinister," and only played "Sukie in the Graveyard," from the newest album. While I'd been curious to see how The Life Pursuit would sound live, I can't really complain with their decision to avoid playing it live. There's always something admirable about a band who doesn't feel obligated to play the entirety of their latest album, relying instead on more obscure choices from their discography.
The high point of the set (and there were a lot of stellar ones) was the band's encore. Coming out without the Philharmonic, Belle and Sebastian played "The Boy With the Arab Strap," to the thunderous approval of the crowd, who completely flipped their wigs and stormed the stage and the catwalk ringing the pit. As the band roared its finale, a line of dancers rocked out in tune. It was one of those moments where for a second, you forget the maddening self-absorption and traffic and smog and general calamity of this town, and decided that perhaps living in Los Angeles does have a few advantages.
As for the Shins, their set was also noteworthy. The band ran through an approximately hour-long set of tracks mainly from Chutes Too Narrow and Oh Inverted World. While I'd repeatedly heard of the band's inadequacy live, I thought they did a solid job. Playing the Hollywood Bowl opening slot for a band like Belle and Sebastian isn't the easiest task to do. Hey, even the Arcade Fire was slightly underwhelming opening for David Byrne last summer.
Live, the Shins also displayed a great deal more charisma than I'd expected, particularly from Marty Crandall, the group's keyboardist. Throughout the entirety of the set, he poked fun at the Angelenos eating "caviar," in the fancy white table clothed dinner tables in front of the stage. He even asked if "anyone went ghetto and picked up some Taco Bell or KFC to bring to the bowl." In my opinion, Marty Crandall = funny. Surprisingly so.
For me, the strength of the Shins set (and to an extent, the Belle and Sebastian set as well) was that seeing the bands live put an emphasis on their lyrics. Unlike many rock singers who refuse to enunciate their words, the Shins' lead singer James Mercer sang clearly and cleanly, allowing me to again appreciate lyrics that I'd heard dozens of times before. In addition to being talented musicians, both James Mercer and Stuart Murdoch are two of the most talented songwriters in rock music today.
The Shins also played several new songs off their forthcoming album, tentatively titled Sleeping Lessons. One of them "Phantom Limb" stuck out as particularly well-written and relatively catchy. From what I heard, I'm betting that the next Shins album will be as good as their first two, which would be quite an achievement.
All in all, a music lover couldn't have wanted more. Two great bands, one backed by a world-class philharmonic at a great venue on a tranquil and breezy Los Angeles summer night. After the show ended, everyone in the booth discussed how incredible it had been. One of Dan's friends who shared the box with us was an expert on Belle and Sebastian and had seen them at least half a dozen times previous. All he could say afterwards was, "I don't think I'll ever see them again. Nothing could top that."
Even my 15-year old self would've agreed.
Passion of the Weiss Rating: 9.0
And if you're interested, be sure to check out these other takes on the show from, the always excellent, You Set the Scene, and the NME (with a full Belle and Sebastian set-list)