As with any musicians that have been active for over two decades, an hour-long gig is a tall yet narrow order, promising only countless omissions. Fortunately, entertainment is very much part of this instant mix as Belle and Sebastian balance the expectations of the ubiquitous old-time fans, as well as appealing to budding enthusiasts at Somerset House’s Summer Series.
The keyboard-led, powerful and nostalgic yet new track Nobody’s Empire opens the set for Belle and Sebastian and their 30-person strong troupe, aptly and spontaneously named the ‘London Contemporary Somerset House Black and White Ensemble’. The flamboyant chorus and back-up dancers ally and complement the background visuals, as Tazmin Merchant who stars in the video introduces us to the rain-fuelled set of this Matador Records act.
Ironically, the second track is Another Sunny Day, and frontman Stuart Murdoch himself recognises the stark contrast between this deceivingly optimistic track from their supercharged 2006 album The Life Pursuit and the night’s gloom, but hopes for a cosmological twist – a feat magically achieved by the next riff, as the 2015 indie anthem The Party Line turns Somerset House into an open air (not so silent) disco. The fourteen-track set is elongated by three encore tracks and zig zags between the old school successes (A Century of Fakers, The State I Am In, The Boy With The Arab Strap) and experiments.
Juggling with the quintessentially sentimental and utterly light-hearted (more prominent in the latest album) and both aided by the ensemble and our own moistened hands’ claps, the night offers highs and lows but keeps an all-round friendly and universal vibe; minus a visual introduction where the word ‘sex’ is repeated a lot, resulting in a few children’s ears being covered. A few tracks also receive dramatic treatments from actors, such as with Dear Catastrophe Waitress (from the eponymous opus), where a dining scene is recreated.
The set proves even more versatile through the variation in vocals as Stuart and violinist Sarah Martin share the spotlight for Women’s Realm whilst she leads I Didn’t See It Coming. The third track from the new album Girls in Peacetime Want To Dance Perfect Couple sees lead guitarist Stevie Jackson thrusting and belting out for this amusing and Afrobeat-infused song, which is also the band’s latest single, mockingly decrying the superficial view of perfect relationships we have. The balance between serious and theological versus fun and humorous is narrowly struck, yet the sexy danceable tracks seem most resonant for a venue like Somerset House.
The few objections to an otherwise sonically perfect and engaging set are that only one track from Write About Love being played (I Didn’t See It Coming), as well as the lack of surprise in the night’s selection up until the encore: the frontman himself assesses the presence of many loyal fans within the audience based on their anticipation (disappointment) before he opens certain tracks. After an explosive opening, Belle and Sebastian deliver a rollercoaster of emotions in a way that may work best in an indoor venue. But with an encore including the entrancing and fast-paced We are the Sleepyheads and a cover of The Jam’s A Town Called Malice (improvised and partly inspired by the exhibition taking place at Somerset House that weekend), the whole crowd is nudged into homogeneously screaming onomatopoeia and the infectious excellence of B&S is restored.
And just as our spirits are lifted, like getting banned from a magic carpet after a celestial getaway, we are jettisoned with the characteristically bittersweet words: “I could kill you sure / But I could only make you cry with these words / Oh, get me away, I’m dying…”
Belle and Sebastian is part of the stellar line-up for this year’s Summer Series at Somerset House with American Express®, just one example of the enriched entertainment experiences available to Cardmembers. For more insider information from some of the UK’s most sought after events visit youtube.com/AmericanExpressUK