Belle & Sebastian in Vicar Street, Dublin, on Tuesday March 27th 2018
“The harder I swim, the faster I sink” A heavy sentiment to close out tonight’s opening set from Julien Baker, a musician whose devastating compositions seem completely at odds with the Technicolor indie pop of the headliners’. Baker holds the stage alone, with a Fender guitar and a bank of pedals at her feet, stilling the air in the room with the intimacy of her lyrics and delivery. Even when she backs away from the mic, her vocal resonates, augmented by her understated but skilful fretwork. She’s joined by a violinist on Shadowboxing, foot tapping with rapid precision on the pedals to elicit the subtlest of tonal changes, seeming to decide in the moment whether or not to shift the mood with the guitar or just let the vocals carry it through. Though dense in subject matter Baker’s songs bear their weight with a folky airiness, but even so, it’s almost a relief when Belle & Sebastian subsequently illuminate Vicar Street with ‘Tigermilk’.
It’s over two decades since that record introduced the Scottish band to the world, and while it’s been three years since they’ve put out an album proper, 2018 brought with it ‘How to Solve Our Human Problems’, a collection of three EPs culled from the interim period. The band paid a visit to Iveagh Gardens last year for a jubilant spin through their catalogue, and tonight’s vibe is similarly charged – it’s a testament to the feel-good factor when even the roadies are clapping time in the wings and the drum tech is air drumming along to Allie.
A night of instrument swapping begins right from the off. Mainstay and chief conductor Stuart Murdoch plays bass while Stevie Jackson takes a Roy Orbison turn on The Wrong Girl. Stevie then switches from traditional guitar to kitsch keytar for a dance-y Electronic Renaissance, even if it seems that it’s more for effect – something snazzy to mirror the keys of Murdoch’s melodica. Bodies move in and around one another throughout the set, and hands fall on various guitars, organs and percussive paraphernalia in a selection that flits from indie pop to country folk, and euro-disco to punchy soul.
At times, it feels like the technology is playing tricks on our senses. New track, Sweet Dew Lee, is such a slight number that when the stage lights begin strobing as it concludes, it’s as if someone has pressed the wrong button at the wrong time on the wrong tune. A pictorial slideshow of their time in Dublin is briefly curtailed – mercifully, some might say – by tech gremlins, so the show simply goes on with Murdoch sitting on the edge of the stage for Piazza, New York Catcher, tightening the gap between the band and the barrier with the ease that has endeared the band to so many, for so long.
“I forgot we are a shy group. We are made for bedrooms and melancholy,” deadpans the singer at one point, but as ever, inclusion is the name of the game with a select few audience members invited onstage to dance with the band through The Boy With the Arab Strap. The schtick culminates with an energetic We Are The Sleepyheads and hugs are doled out to all the participating happyheads. Is it cloying? Absolutely, but this is par for the course at a Belle & Sebastian party. The crowd get the last word at the encore with an audience request for Judy And The Dream Of Horses, bringing things back to 1996 where we kicked off. Tree-lined city park or inner city venue, it doesn’t matter…Belle & Sebastian will continue to create their cocoon of indie enchantment wherever they land.