Live Review: Belle & Sebastian with Perfume Genius at Paramount Theatre 4/7/15

Live Reviews
Jacob Webb
photos by Brittany Brassell (view set)

"An encore. How predictable," said a pre-recorded video of the cover model from Belle & Sebastian's latest album right before the Glaswegian pop stalwarts returned to the stage. And she was right. Contrary to their historical tradition, encores at modern concerts are almost always planned well in advance. However, that self-effacing moment was the only remotely expectable element of the night. Promoting their most disparate album to date, drawing from twenty years of music, and playing with twelve members onstage, Stuart Murdoch and company spent nearly hours doing what they do best: exploring life, love, and loss through the ever-shifting lens of pop.

Opening the night was Perfume Genius, an act that is currently undergoing a stylistic transformation not unlike those that B&S have undergone in the past. Before the release of his latest album, 2014's excellent Too Bright, Mike Hadreas was a powerfully quiet performer, often staying behind the piano for the majority of his set times and only occasionally stopping to briefly address the crowd. Those days are over. Although he hasn't abandoned those still-piercing piano songs, Hadreas has dramatically turned into a commanding frontman, stomping, slithering, and screaming his way around the stage in a way that's both unnerving and impossible to look away from. It's quite a testament to both a songwriting and his performance that he's able to switch between snarling and sentimental with such conviction, and by the time he closed his set with "Queen" – one of 2014's hands-down best singles – he'd completed that transformation. Hadreas is a force to be reckoned with now more than ever, and if he can hold onto this momentum for his next release, he's not going to be opening for Belle & Sebastian – or anyone else, for that matter.

Now in their third decade as a band, Belle & Sebastian are the most playful they've ever been. (Would any other band christen their reissue campaign It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career?) They've just their most dance-friendly album, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, and regardless of their age or place in the musical landscape, they're dead-set on having a good time. Starting the night with the triumphant Girls In Peacetime opener "Nobody's Empire", the band jumped right into uptempo material and didn't let up for another half hour. One of the most impressive aspects of the night is how the band was able to weave tracks from all of the band's eras into a celebratory, cohesive set, which was especially reflected in the night's first half. Balancing newer tracks like "The Party Line" and "Perfect Couples" were beloved B&S classics like "I'm A Cuckoo" and "Jonathan David", the latter of which featured Justice, a fan brought onstage to mime and flirt with Murdoch while his longtime lieutenant Stevie Jackson took over the reins.

The songs on the early B&S albums have a singular kind of intimate resonance. Essentially, they're custom built to be listened to in headphones in your bedroom on a rainy night. When that intimacy is experienced by 2,000+ people in a gorgeous historical theatre, however, it takes on a new sense of small scale majesty, which is what propelled the night's second half. Aside from the recent, Sarah Martin-led "The Power of Three" and "I Didn't See It Coming", Murdoch led the band deep into their '90s oeuvre, pulling out both deep cuts ("My Wandering Days Are Over", "A Summer Wasted") and signature songs ("The Boy With the Arab Strap", "The State That I'm In"). To say nothing of their quality, the way that these songs have evolved is nothing short of incredible. Their original versions sound just the way Belle and Sebastian used to look: bookish, clever, and shy. But framing the songs, or the band, that way isn't just reductive, it's glaringly wrong. In the past decade, Belle and Sebastian have evolved into the pop group they've quietly always wanted to be. When they invited 20 or so fans onstage to dance with them during "Arab Strap", the feeling in the room was nothing short of jubilant. (The band were so elated with the result that they kept the fans up for an additional song.) They're more suited for Coachella than All Tomorrow's Parties these days and it shows in every aspect of their performances: the high-quality visuals, the string section, Murdoch's dance moves, and, of course, the hit parade of sorts they've collected over the past two decades. At the end of the night, it was clear that Belle and Sebastian's career has been not just brilliant, but anything but predictable.

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