Monday, June 22, 2015

CONCERT REVIEW: Belle and Sebastian & Courtney Barnett (The Pabst Theatre, Milwaukee)

It's unfortunate that for some Belle and Sebastian will always be filed under the dubious category of "sad bastard music", in part because the long-standing Scottish outfit never really deserved their oppressive reputation for twee navel-gazing, but mostly because their recent output, admittedly sparse since 2006's The Life Pursuit, has been better suited for the dance floor than lonely bedroom contemplation. Yet while a mid-career change of pace should be expected from any group that sticks around as long as they have, the remarkable thing about this particular case is how organic it's felt from beginning to end. Instead of enduring a period of painful trend-hopping, Stuart Murdoch and company have had little trouble keeping pace with the indie-pop crowd they helped create, as evidenced by this upbeat Friday-night performance at the Pabst.

Warming up the crowd, an appropriately large one considering they haven't played Milwaukee in quite some time, was Australian artist Courtney Barnett, still fresh off the release of her debut studio album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Her brand of likable, sun-drenched indie rock, propelled by some quirky, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, seemed to sit well with the audience, but at the same time didn't appear to have left anyone all that excited. Belle and Sebastian, on the other hand, had to do little more than walk onstage, silhouetted in miniature by an enormously projected video introduction, before they had everyone's undivided attention. The set that followed rewarded it, seamlessly blending both recent and classic material in a way that demonstrated the similarities between the two rather than their differences.

In addition to showing off several numbers from their new Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, including lead-off single "The Party Line" and the catchy "Perfect Couples", the band, backed by a string section and additional singers, also delved deep into their back catalog. Most anything uptempo proved fair game, such as "I'm a Cuckoo" from 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress or The Life Pursuit's "Sukie in the Graveyard", but 1998's The Boy with the Arab Strap received some special, and much-appreciated, attention. Overall the show offered little to complain about, either in terms of substance or showmanship, but was especially impressive in its elegant balance of old and new. By now most listeners have probably decided where they stand with Belle and Sebastian, but a lively performance like this could hardly be considered depressing.

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