LIVE REVIEW: Belle and Sebastian @ Sage Gateshead (22.03.18) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Images by Amelia Read

He is dead and he is going to die, Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

He told me to leave / My vision of Hell / To the dying, Belle and Sebastian, Nobody’s Empire

As Belle and Sebastian finished their opening song of the night (the rousing and beautiful Nobody’s Empire) there appeared on the giant screen behind them a photograph, fading to a blank (or rather, ‘exposing in reverse’ in the darkroom). The photograph showed the famous image, taken by Alexander Gardner in 1865, of Lewis Payne, one of the conspirators behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, after his arrest and on his way to being executed. The French philosopher Roland Barthes has been one of many to obsess over this photograph. He finds it so moving because it shows not only a man who is now dead, but a man who has been captured on film whilst on his way to dying. “He is dead and he is going to die”. For Barthes, great photographs have two properties. The ‘studium’ is simply whatever makes you want to look at it. The ‘punctum’ is that tiny single detail of a truly great image that punctures the surface, leaps through the frame and grabs you, and makes the whole experience timeless.

As the lyrics to their song I’m A Cuckoo (the second track of tonight’s gig) attest, Belle and Sebastian’s groovy, camp-pop vision has always been ‘punctuated by philosophy’. Calling attention to the Lewis Payne photo, and therefore to Barthes’ famous essay about it, is seemingly a subtle invitation from the band to figure out what the ‘studium’ and the ‘punctum’ of their own image might be, and whether their always-understated brilliance can truly be considered ‘great’ or ‘timeless’.

The ‘studium’ of Belle and Sebastian’s whole vibe, the thing that makes them what they are, is probably that they’re indie-pop-101; appallingly white, unapologetically Scottish, and just very, very, very nice. “We’re probably the only band never to have offended anyone ever”, jokes frontman Stuart Murdoch tonight, after almost-but-not-quite attempting to do a Geordie accent.

They’re also just relentlessly good songwriters. Other than the odd appearance on soundtracks for various forgettably twee independent films, the band have never had what you’d comfortably call ‘a hit’, instead ploughing deeper than anyone else the furrows of ‘cult’ and ‘niche’. And yet, tonight’s setlist felt laden with absolute classics – including Piazza, New York Catcher, Legal Man, Sukie in the Graveyard, She’s Losing It, and The Boy With the Arab Strap – even whilst excluding every song from perhaps their most beloved record, If You’re Feeling Sinister. Coming back onstage for an encore, Murdoch asked the audience for requests. He was absolutely inundated, and seemed genuinely touched by people’s eagerness to hear their favourites, their competitive back-and-forth to see who could ask for the most obscure song.

If Belle and Sebastian are A Great Band (and this humble observer says yes, they are), if they burst through the ‘studium’ with some or other ‘punctum’, it could be because they’re absolutely attuned to the depths and details of human feeling against the backdrop of history’s vast and turning screw. But are sort of quiet and happy about that. They have a vision of hell-on-earth that’s stark, literary, historical, and personal. And yet they’re totally and absolutely joyous. If you want ‘punctum’, Roland, you needn’t look any further than Murdoch’s delicate voice almost whispering into the microphone during The Boy With the Arab Strap: “Well, it only takes one person to get up onstage to start it off”.

So, for the second time in my life, I punctured the fourth wall and danced onstage with Belle and Sebastian, alongside my brother and other properly gleeful fans (including, weirdly, fittingly, out of nowhere, my former English teacher), looking back out of the frame towards the auditorium, inside and outside of history at once, not yet dead, definitely ‘going to die’, but having just such a bloody good time.

In the song My Wandering Days Are Over from the 1996 debut album Tigermilk, Murdoch sings of the fictional character ‘Belle’: “You were doing it for business-men on the piano, Belle. / You said it was a living Hell”. Rhyming with himself, nineteen years later, in Nobody’s Empire, he tells of “a girl who sang like the chime of a bell. / She put out her arms. She touched me when I was in Hell”. Yeah, we all have visions of Hell, and sometimes we live through them, but wherever there’s ‘hell’ there’s also ‘song’. Sure, we are all ‘the dying’, and will soon be ‘the dead’. But we can reach out our arms across boundaries. And we might as well have a proper good dance with each other while we’re at it.

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