Stuart Murdoch comes on stage wearing designer specs, a scarf wrapped around his neck and the collars raised on his sharp shirt. Since when did Belle & Sebastian’s leader – who inherited legions of social introverts with lyrics that spoke of how “the fashion brigade look with curious eyes on your raggedy way” – turn into an indie hipster?
In the space of one song, however – the Sarah Martin-sung opener I Didn’t See It Coming – Stuart manages to discard all three garments one by one, leaving him in the more familiar plain T-shirt look (and possibly chronically short-sighted) for the next two hours.
The first of three nights at the Barras turns out to be full of theatrical touches, both planned and spontaneous. Step Into My Office, augmented by a five-piece string section, sees Stuart hold aloft a Brazil flag plucked from the crowd with impeccable timing for him to sing the lyrics “my banner I laid down with a sigh” before letting it drop to the floor.
Stevie Jackson tries out some audience participation before the start of the upbeat I’m Not Living In The Real World (although Stuart mischievously claims one fan is out of tune and “we should root them out”) and a spot of mid-song whistling is encouraged for The Loneliness Of A Middle Distance Runner.
Sukie In The Graveyard showcases Belle & Sebastian’s flair for a pop chorus, with Chris Geddes adding some impromptu Jingle Bells interludes on the keyboard, while the sight of guitarist Bob Kildea’s locks flapping in the breeze created by a mechanical fan at the side of the stage makes him look like something out of a shampoo ad.
Stuart, ultra-relaxed and chatty throughout, then asks fans to donate spare change to Lodging House Mission, a drop-in centre for the homeless which overlooks the venue. Not content with just making a plea, he jumps into the crowd himself with a bucket for several minutes while the rest of the band play a version of Santa Claus by The Sonics, although much of the audience is distracted by the invasion of the band’s wandering singer.
Fox In The Snow and Dear Catastrophe Waitress are well received, while the motivation behind an earlier skit about Status Quo (“we like the Quo and I don’t care who knows it,” says Stuart) is revealed when their “cover” of the much-maligned rockers turns out to be The Blues Are Still Blue, which is driven by a very Quo-like guitar riff. (Incidentally, check out this delightful YouTube video of Spanish schoolkids miming to the song.)
When Belle & Sebastian’s thirsty frontman demands that drinks be brought to the stage, it prompts a surprise appearance from Still Game’s Gavin Mitchell in his role of Boaby the Barman. He delivers a tray of pints, but not before mocking the band with several expletives and warning the audience to “keep the noise down”.
Four fans earn medals after being invited on stage to dance along to the sparkling Dirty Dream Number Two (although it’s a bit strange to hear Stuart sing the female spoken-word part) and The Boy With The Arab Strap, before Belle & Sebastian deliver a stirring performance of Sleep The Clock Around – sadly there’s no reprise of the live piper they brought out the last time they played the Barras in 2001.
Oddly, it’s only when the band leave the stage that the clamour for an encore finds the crowd at its most animated, with plenty of foot-stamping and noisy cheering. Up until then, the atmosphere had been inexplicably static and restrained, even during the uptempo numbers. Perhaps the punters were awestruck because Belle & Sebastian really were on cracking form, so much so I can actually forgive them for not playing anything from Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant or Tigermilk… just.
While set-closer Another Sunny Day proves slightly anti-climatic, the song that comes before it was the highlight of the night for me. Stuart introduces Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying by explaining that he started writing it after coming out of a nightclub and that he stayed on the No.16 bus as it drove around Glasgow until it was finished. There were few more emotionally resonating moments than when he sang, “Play me a song to set me free/Nobody writes them like they used to/So it may as well be me”.
This pre-Christmas gig may have been full of pantomime but nobody who left the Barras could deny it was the songs that stole the show.
Belle & Sebastian – The Loneliness Of A Middle Distance Runner
Belle & Sebastian – Santa Claus (The Sonics cover)