The veteran Scottish indie-pop band made its show relevant when it played the Civic Monday night. 

belle and sebastian photo by steven hatley for my spilt milk
Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian, by Steven Hatley

[Updated] When Stuart Murdoch sang, “We were on the outside looking in” Monday night at The Civic, he could have been articulating Belle and Sebastian’s central thought. The veteran Scottish indie rock band has got 20 years out of tweedy alienation, in part because no one went broke by making young people (and people who were young once) feel dramatic, but also because Belle and Sebastian made it seem beautiful. Murdoch’s songs do much of the work both lyrically and musically, but the show itself underlined the connection. 

Monday night’s concert was the band’s first in New Orleans, something Murdoch explained away, saying simply, “I don’t know what happened.” The wait made the night seem like an event, so much so that bouncing, dancing fans rocked the Civic’s floor for the last 30 to 45 minutes of the show. Murdoch’s commitment to his well-meant efforts at dancing gave everybody permission to get into the show their way, and when he brought fans on stage for “The Boy with the Arab Strap,” one woman stood behind him and lip synched as if she was the star.

The show also felt meaningful in the way that so many things do in Trump’s America. In the week that the Supreme Court came down on the side of Masterpiece Bakery, gay couples dancing in the audience and the inclusion of queer people in the portraits than showed on the rear screen during “Dylan in the Movies” gave the concert the frisson of resistance. On the same day that Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled that domestic violence and gang violence are not grounds for asylum in a clear effort to reduce the number of asylum claims, the portraits of beautiful men and women from many ethnic backgrounds underlined what will be lost if their efforts to whitewash America continue unchallenged. 

I wondered if I was reading political significance into the portraits, but later in the show Murdoch talked about marrying a woman from Florida and being asked by her father, “How did you get into this country, young man? What extraordinary ability do you have?” The latter is the question asked of foreign nationals seeking O visas, which made the political subtext less sub. During the encore of “Stars of Track and Field,” Murdoch raised his fist just as the montage of Olympic athletes got to Tommie Smith raising the black power salute in Mexico City in 1968.   

Really though, the show was about rock ’n’ roll, and how easily it can morph from one state to another with only a slight change of context. When a video of kids lip synching the song at high school accompanied “The Blues are Still Blue” while the stage was covered in fans, the moment became about rock ’n’ roll as a liberating force. For moments, kids in the video become rock stars, and it was clear that the dancers still onstage after “The Boy with the Arab Strap” were enjoying their rock ’n’ roll moment as well. I often find a stageful of fans a banal spectacle that doesn’t pay off once they’re actually there, but the song’s bright, aggressive hip shake gave many a chance to play star as well, or dance with their hands in the air like they just don’t care. Only one people broke out his camera (that’s rare), and he moved toward the front of the stage where he could shoot a selfie with Murdoch over his shoulder. In context, even that seemed cheeky, not cliché. 

When Murdoch introduced a song about a relation and said, “It never ends well,” I noted that it was another possible subtitle for Belle and Sebastian songs. As true as that is, the wisecrack didn’t feel right for the occasion. The loneliness and reservation that threads through his songs took a background to the simpler pleasures of pop songs that the audience met with joyous enthusiasm. The band’s ability to make itself meaningful this late in the game was an added pleasure.

Updated July 15, 11 a.m.

The publicity photo that originally accompanied this review has been replaced by a photo from the show courtesy of Steven Hatley.