Belle & Sebastian – The Bridgewater Hall – 12/03/18

The choice of venue for Belle & Sebastian‘s current tour in support of their three-part EP series How to Solve Our Human Problems, released at the end of last year, appears to be a bit of a strange one. York Opera House and the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall demonstrate the grand surroundings that the tour is yet to visit and this evening the equally elegant Bridgewater Hall provides the backdrop to this sophisticated all-seated affair. But this is a Belle & Sebastian gig – fans are surely not going to remain contained in their nicely upholstered seats for long, are they?

The choice of support tonight is also a bit of an odd one, but is ultimately spellbinding. It’s a crying shame that Julien Baker‘s early stage time results in a half-empty auditorium, but then again, the Memphis native’s sinewy confessions could not be further from Belle & Sebastian’s jaunty pop. It is fair to say that the acoustics in the venue are immaculate and opening track ‘Turn Out the Lights’ is a great introduction to the singer-songwriter for the early arrivers; fragile vocals and a tender melody played out on guitar manage to fill the cavernous hall during the opening verses before the final, apocalyptic deluge of emotion ushers forth. ‘When I turn out the lights, there’s no one left between myself and me,’ confesses the twenty-two year old and standing alone on the venue’s large stage tonight, these honest proclamations have never sounded so exposed.

‘Appointments’ follows a similar blueprint of confessional honesty, this time accompanying her own ominous guitar loop with some beautifully stark keys before cathartically erupting during the final verse when she hopes that ‘maybe it’s all going to turn out alright… Oh, I know that it’s not’. Later tracks this evening are musically fleshed out with the introduction of strings to the stark compositions but it is Baker’s voice that prevails – it is impossible to not be overcome by the power and exposed honesty on display, all enhanced by the grand surroundings of the Bridgewater Hall’s vast ceilings which bequeath an enthralling, indomitable spirit upon her. In more intimate surroundings the impact must be devastating!

When Belle and Sebastian headlined Green Man in 2016, the evening concluded with Stuart Murdoch inviting the Mountain Stage revellers to join him on stage. Hundreds accepted the offer and the stage creaked as the enthusiastic masses took the opportunity to scream ‘fuck Brexit!’ when offered the chance to say something profound into the microphone. In the more sophisticated surroundings of The Bridgewater Hall, this evening’s show surely wouldn’t descend into similarly spirited frolics. Accompanied by a string quartet, there is certainly very little room remaining already and this addition contributes to a more refined air as the Scots handsomely traverse early records before arriving at ‘Sweet Dew Lee’, a breezy, joyous highlight from the trio of new EPs.

There are intermittent attempts by an energetic Murdoch to get the Manchester crowd on its feet at this stage, but it isn’t until The Life Pursuit‘s ‘Sukie in the Graveyard’ that this energy really begins to manifest in the stalls and circle. An invite to the crowd results in several dozen fans squeezing on to the stage and those unable to fit stay standing, dancing wherever they can find space. Involving fans in this way is invigorating initially but at the risk of sounding like a bit of a curmudgeon, watching fans take selfies on stage for the next few songs, concluding with the obligatory ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ ultimately becomes a bit tedious. It’s fair to say however that everyone on the stage was having a riot!

In deference to the late Mark E. Smith, described by Murdoch as Manchester’s poet laureate, the band produce an unexpected, blistering version of ‘Mr. Pharmacist’ before an animated ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ and ‘The Party Line’ conclude the evening’s encore. The show is certainly a riot of colour and is acoustically majestic in these equally grandiose surroundings. However, inconsistent vocals at times, along with a slightly nagging impression that perhaps the venue is holding the band and audience back, somewhat made what could have been a great gig simply a good one.

Photos: Iain Fox