Kicking things off with an instrumental that amasses more sounds and contributors as it progresses, the sprawling B-side that is “Judy Is a Dick Slap” and its late ’80s/early ’90s game show theme comparisons provided a fitting opening number that also allowed Belle & Sebastian’s roster modest introductions to the crowd. For the most part, it operated simply as a vehicle allowing the band’s members to enter the stage as their contributions were cued into the mix, saving formal introductions for later and allowing their musical capabilities to speak for themselves.
The one slight exception was Belle & Sebastian founder and band leader Stuart Murdoch’s entrance, which involved the ceremonial closing of an umbrella. That action simultaneously signaled the end of the downpour that affected previous sets on TURF’s last day and the beginning of Belle & Sebastian’s. For anyone out of the loop, it also confirmed Murdoch’s place as the band’s central entertainer.
From there on, Murdoch was behind the wheel of one of the most charismatic, charming, and crowd involving concert performances Toronto has experienced this year so far.
That a Belle & Sebastian concert earns that title is probably directly due to the fact that so many of Murdoch’s pretty songs double as character profiles and critiques that mash up omniscient storytelling, dark humour, and twee instrumentals. It’s a delivery formula that sort of just necessitates audience familiarity, investment and captivity.
The real-life size of Murdoch’s subjects allows Murdoch to inject a heavy dose of literalism into his performances, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he follows up on the opportunity.
The portion of Belle & Sebastian’s set perhaps most illustrative of such dramatics was its vaudeville performance of Murdoch’s bully-lamenting anthem about a boy that wore mascara, “Lord Anthony.”
Setting things up for the song, Murdoch had crowd members with access to the VIP pit pass off a tube of the aforementioned makeup to a girl in the front row. Later on, the singer left the stage, passed through the VIP crowd, and approached the girl only to have her theatrically apply it to his eyes, then climbing atop the barrier to pantomime the closing portion of the number and the words, “leave two fingers in the air” by doing just that with his middle digits.
Prior to an earlier performance of “The Model,” Murdoch called upon a girl in the VIP pit to join him onstage. Mentioning he was supposed to go on a date with the girl after the show, the two sat at a table and engaged in what the singer called “indie Scrabble,” playing a speedy, un-scored round of the game. Not letting the show go on without music for too long, Murdoch soon left his seat to start the song as other band members joined his “date” at the table to push the game along. At one point left to her own devices, the girl too left her seat to dance along onstage, even pretending to flash the crowd when Murdoch half-whispered the song’s line about “The girl next door who’s famous for showing her chest.”
Other tactics Murdoch enlisted in his TURF M.O. involved inviting a couple handfuls of fans onstage to dance during “The Boy with the Arab Strap,” dedicating “The Stars of Track and Field” to Wimbledon champion and fellow Scotsman Andy Murray, relating an alleged recent facial surgery that left him unable to whistle and thusly requesting the audience’s participation on “The Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner,” calling on an audience member to get onstage and provide former band member Isobell Campbell’s spoken part on “Dirty Dream Number Two” (she sang the part when the band got there, but such is a risk that comes with the territory of selecting crowd participants at random), and taking asides in the middle of songs to censor his more colourful lyrics because of the festival’s “all ages” demographic or alternatively to greet remarkably well-behaved babies in the VIP pit (learning parents take note: Belle & Sebastian’s bedroom pop is newborn friendly).
Of course, Murdoch doesn’t have to engage in kissing baby campaign tactics to win over his audiences; it all just cements his place as the favoured Belle & Sebastian frontispiece.
Fans tend to puff up at songs from Belle & Sebastian’s more democratic period featuring lead vocals from any member that is not Stuart Murdoch, and as if in a display of sympathy, the only related offense the band committed at TURF was facilitated through “To Be Myself Completely,” led by guitarist Stevie Jackson. Murdoch didn’t seem to mind the break from the spotlight, but you could catch him receive an authoritative elbow from violinist Sarah Martin after delivering one of his backing parts on the song, so maybe he has a thing against letting Jackson do what his existential number is about.
The band rounded off the regular portion of its set with If You’re Feeling Sinister closer “Judy and the Dream of Horses,” only to return with an encore they insisted they were merely providing at the insistence of a man that stopped them from making their way to their van (festival founder Jeff Cohen, perhaps?). They played “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” as if to reify Murdoch’s intent to finish with material from what he’s referred to on-and-off as his best collection of songs, and that was it. Toronto Urban Roots Fest was over.
Touring just ahead of Aug. 26-due collection The Third Eye Centre, it might have come as a surprise (and maybe a disappointment) to eager fans that Belle & Sebastian didn’t delve into some deeper cuts – the closest they got to promoting their “new” product was with “I’m a Cuckoo” and “Your Cover’s Blown,” only appearing on the compilation as Avalanches and Miaoux Miaoux remixes (respectively) – but it would have been difficult to argue with the band’s self-aware and sweeping representation of its back catalogue.
“Judy Is a Dick Slap”
“I’m a Cuckoo”
“Another Sunny Day”
“The Stars of Track and Field”
“Dirty Dream Number Two”
“To Be Myself Completely”
“Piazza, New York Catcher”
“The Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner”
“Your Cover’s Blown”
“I Didn’t See It Coming”
“The Boy with the Arab Strap”
“Judy and the Dream of Horses”
“Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”
Originally published by The Ontarion.