17 songs— one for each year Belle & Sebastian have neglected to play Pittsburgh during their prolific career, until now. On a warm Saturday night, Stuart Murdoch brought his troupe of Scottish musicians (I counted 13 in total: four string players, three multi-instrumentalists, two keyboardists, drums, bass, guitar, and Murdoch himself) to Stage AE outdoors, with the audience packed to hear just how the band would translate its immaculately arranged twee-pop to the stage.
Amazing well, as it turned out. Over two hours, Murdoch played the ultimate bandleader, introducing each member individually and telling jokes and stories between each song (excitedly listing off all the Pittsburgh facts he memorized pre-show). Because it was the first time they gave a concert in the Steel City, Murdoch declared that, rather than just playing the hits or the new material, the band would perform a survey of their material. In fact, more songs stemmed from their 1996 debut Tigermilk than from their most recent album, 2010’s Write About Love.
And despite the fact that the three songs I most looked forward to hearing live were ignored in the set (Dear Catastrophe Waittress’s title track, opener “Step Into My Office, Baby,” and closer “Stay Loose”), it was impossible to pout when B&S brought out their personal favorites to share with the crowd. “I Want the World To Stop,” an odd but energetic tune from WAL, turned into an extended jam, contrasting brilliantly with “Lord Antony,” a slow, melancholy number performed just two songs after. “Lord Antony” should receive special mention as one of the highlights of the night, beautifully done with the full force of the strings and horns at Murdoch’s disposal. Benefiting from the best audio balance I’ve heard at Stage AE, B&S perfectly translated their fleshed out instrumentation, their more laid back songs receiving just as much attention to detail as their crowd-pleasing, upbeat ones.
And even before Murdoch invited a large handful of audience members to dance onstage for two numbers (“The Boy With the Arab Strap” and “Legal Man”), the concert reached its true pinnacle for a wild and extended performance of “Your Cover’s Blown,” an obscure Talking Heads-goes-disco track from 2004’s Books EP. When the song hit its “Barracuda”-esque tempo jump, Murdoch jumped into the pit and wandered among the crowd, fireworks exploding in the background. And no, that last part wasn’t exaggerated— the Pirates game just next door ended in a victory and a large pyrotechnics display, possibly as a result of B&S’s full rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” earlier.
A successful night all around. Unfortunately, I failed to catch the opener Yo La Tengo, the famous Hoboken trio whose album Fade is one of my favorites so far this year, due to extenuating circumstances that also resulted in the lack of photographs of the night. But between Murdoch’s infectious good nature, dance moves that even David Byrne might envy, and the clever and bright music of his band, Belle & Sebastian more than made up for that, and their long absence from the town, and every other gripe you could possibly have. I can’t wait to see them the next time they're able to make it to Pittsburgh— when I’m 35.
Belle & Sebastian concert Stage AE Yo La Tengo