Belle and Sebastian — named after a heartwarming French children’s novel entitled Belle et Sébastien — opened its set with “I’m a Cuckoo” off the 2004 album Dear Catastrophe Waitress, setting the casually kooky tone for their set at Sutro stage Friday afternoon. Formed in 1996, the Scottish Europop band is known for its ability to blend optimistic melodies with lyrics that capture both the melancholy and romantic eccentricities of life. The opening song transitioned into “We Were Beautiful,” a pessimistic tune showcasing the gorgeous harmony of the band’s vocalists.
Before launching into “She’s Losing It,” off the band’s first album Tigermilk, frontman Stuart Murdoch explained that the album was named in part after Tiger’s Milk bars, which a close friend introduced him to while visiting San Francisco, prompting giggles from the crowd. When he returned home from the trip, Murdoch wrote the record and named it after the snack.
Murdoch, who plays keyboard and guitar in addition to being a singer-songwriter for the band, shared personal anecdotes and stories behind his lyrics throughout the set. Many of the band members have stuck together since the band’s inception in the ‘90s, including vocalist and guitarist Stevie Jackson and the multi-talented Sarah Martin. Martin harmonized beautifully alongside Murdoch, often while playing keys, guitar, violin and flute.
The band curated the majority of their setlist around the theme of San Francisco and the Bay Area, and even converted some lyrics to fit the city. Toward the middle of the show, it played hits including “Piazza, New York Catcher” — with a subtle change in lyric as a nod to San Francisco — and the spunky “Perfect Couples.” Murdoch shared that “Piazza, New York Catcher” was written about his wife — the story of when the couple went to a Giants vs. Mets game together in the city — prompting a collective “aw” from the crowd.
The band’s performance was endearing, even cute at times when Murdoch shared sentimental stories and bopped around with almost-childlike playfulness during the existential “Another Sunny Day.” Later, the band played the introspective, quirky “Sukie in the Graveyard,” which Murdoch explained, is about an Art Institute student he once knew while living in San Francisco. The woman was known for sneaking into the attics of the school buildings at night. Murdoch sat on the edge of the stage as he sang, even hopping down and into the crowd to hold hands with fans.
Toward the end of the set, the band invited fans to dance onstage with them to “The Boy with the Arab Strap” and “Legal Man,” with which it closed the show. By the end, there must have been nearly a hundred movers and shakers on stage with the band, as Murdoch hopped on the piano, sang and intermittently hugged admirers.
Belle and Sebastian’s Outside Lands set captured the whimsy evident throughout each of the band’s albums, even through songs of sorrow and cynicism, and especially those of joy and reflection. The band’s music conjures images of skirts twirling in a flower field as the sun sets during golden hour, and its performance delivered on the same sunny energy.