Belle and Sebastian brings multi-instrumental talent to Fox Theater stage

Doug Smith/Staff
Doug Smith / Staff

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As Belle and Sebastian geared up to play “Piazza, New York Catcher,” one of the band’s signature songs, on the stage of the Fox Theater in Oakland, lead singer Stuart Murdoch asked the crowd whether a rivalry existed between Oakland and San Francisco, as the latter is heavily mentioned in the song. He then shared that Belle and Sebastian used to view fellow Scottish group Franz Ferdinand as rivals until Franz Ferdinand “became the biggest band in the world,” joking that he often talks about this development in therapy.

But as the band started playing, such rivalries were forgotten — the crowd was free of hard feelings as it swayed along to Belle and Sebastian (not Franz Ferdinand) performing a song about San Francisco (not Oakland) in a venue in Oakland (not San Francisco).

Japanese Breakfast, the solo project of Michelle Zauner, took to the stage first at the June 25 show, waking the Monday-night crowd up with bass-heavy jams that managed to maintain much of the electronic quality of the act’s recorded work.

The only thing plaguing Japanese Breakfast’s performance was a buzzing noise that, despite several attempts, could not be removed from the sound system — although this, if anything, made the music all the more characteristically lo-fi.

The seven members of Belle and Sebastian, along with a handful of touring musicians, emerged onto the stage wearing a hodgepodge of different outfits: While many of them were sporting T-shirts and jeans, guitarist Stevie Jackson donned a full suit, complete with a tie that was as skinny as they come.

But if Belle and Sebastian showcased variety with its attire, it did so even more with its sound. As drummer Richard Colburn told The Daily Californian, most of the musicians in the band are multi-instrumentalists, and this was particularly evident in the transitions between songs — the band members hardly got a second to breathe, as they often had to station themselves in new spots on the stage and switch out their instruments. Over the course of the night, the Fox was filled with the sounds of not only guitar, bass and drums, but also keyboards, recorder, synth, cowbell, harmonica and various other instruments.

This is not to say that the band’s performance was disjointed in the slightest. Murdoch took special care to introduce the tracks performed with bits of context — for example, he quipped that “We’re just one month out” before playing “Mayfly,” and before “Sukie in the Graveyard,” he shared memories of the song’s namesake. The performance of “The Party Line” was itself turned into a dance party, with audience members brought onstage to join in on the fun.

Much of the set consisted of songs from How to Solve Our Human Problems, a set of three EPs that the band released over the course of the past winter. This gave the musicians opportunities to strut their stuff on the microphone, as these songs feature significant vocal contributions from Jackson, multi-instrumentalist Sarah Martin and the rest of the band in their harmonies.

And these songs benefited greatly from the harmonies — the parts during which Murdoch sang alone sounded like a somewhat strange combination of the vocals from the band’s acoustic-driven early days and the complex instrumentals of the group’s recent, more modern work. Layered vocals were, in a sense, necessary to complement the layered instrumentals.

Perhaps the standout performance of the night, though, was “Belle and Sebastian,” a song that Murdoch said may even predate the naming of the band. He pointed out that the group does not play the song often, and as he began crooning the lyrics — “I left my school, I left my job” — the nostalgia associated with the song was unmistakable in the grin on Murdoch’s face.

Among the last songs the group played was “I Want the World to Stop,” which was set to a backdrop of footage the band members had filmed from a boat on the San Francisco Bay the day before. As the audience members sang along, one thing was clear: They may have been singing that they wanted the world to stop, but they sure didn’t want Belle and Sebastian’s concert to.

Nick Schwartz is the night editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @NickSchwartz11.