In 20+ years of concert going since their formation in 1996, I’d never seen Belle & Sebastian live. And yet, tonight I was more excited to see the opener from Baltimore, MD. If you haven’t at least heard of Snail Mail, the band not the analog of email, then you aren’t paying attention. No? Doesn’t ring a bell? Ok then you’ll want to pay attention to this review! Teenager Lindsey Jordan a.k.a. Snail Mail is crazy talented. She has a tremendous voice that has a soulful raspiness to it, somewhat akin to a Joan Jett or a less aggressive Janis Joplin. Her guitar playing is melodic and confident beyond her years. She’s open about her sexuality, which can be tough regardless of your age, but for a 19 year old to be out and proud in such a public form is remarkable. Although she no longer plays, she was also quite an ice hockey player, a sport near and dear to my heart. So if you think Snail Mail is just another one of those flash in the pan bands you can bet you’ll be hearing a lot more about them particularly after this tour they’re on with Belle & Sebastian.
Sporting her signature shoulder length platinum blonde hair and bright red lipstick, Ms. Jordan and her bandmates took to the stage, cutting through the blue lit fog from the smoke machine. They began with an improvised jam that had Lindsey on one knee turning knobs on her effects pedals while guitar, bass, and drums filled in stochastically before breaking into their first song, “Heat Wave”, from their debut album entitled Lush, released just last week on Matador Records. Up next was “Dirt”, a song from the 2016 EP entitled Habit. A quick transition took them into “Slug” another track from Habit that showcases Jordan’s vocal range. With a lilt of the head and bend of the knee Lindsey’s voice opens wide as a sound bigger than seems possible emanates from her slight frame dressed in a baggy adidas hoodie and white jeans. As the song comes to a close and the instrumentation slows and quiets, her voice is all we hear:
So if you look death right in the face, don’t thank him
Because there’s nothing and there won’t ever be
And in moss covered springs you’ll never find anything
So what’s the use in hiding under our feet?
There is a pause from the crowd as the song ends and we all clap smiling. It was special. She is special. I echo other critics sentiments when I say I am so excited about this album but also the thought that this is just the beginning for Ms. Jordan’s promising career. The set rolled on and featured tracks from the new album such as Golden Dream, Thinning, and Pristine after which the band exited leaving Jordan alone in front of her mic to perform one last track. “Anytime”, also the final track on Lush, was anything but. Rather her performance was stark and crisp but sharp and to the point. Her voice pierced the ether between each of us standing at attention, fixated on this young woman who commanded us like a veteran performer.
Next up was everyone’s favorite indie Scotsman, Belle & Sebastian. I must admit I had no real expectations as it’s been a while since I’d paid close attention to their music. If You’re Feeling Sinister met my ears in 1996 and to this day it will always conjure a vivid mental image of my college room in our house called “Shady Grove”. I have such incredibly important and fond memories associated with their music but like a relationship described in one of their songs we drifted apart at the turn of the century and we’ve not met up since, until tonight. And to my great surprise it was like catching up with an old friend and leaving off just where you left off, barely missing a beat. Sure we were both older now but it didn’t matter.
The lights fell but were quickly replaced by the projection of a black and white film from the newsreel archive British Pathé about a man and his marionette. The use of films as a backdrop for their songs became a theme throughout the night. When films were not shown aesthetically relevant colorful patterns became the backdrop for the performers. The stage was filled with instruments and performers and later in the show with audience members as well. Sebastian himself, Stuart Murdoch lead the affair while flanked by longtime and founding members Stevie Jackson on guitar and bass, keyboardist Chris Geddes, and vocalist, violinist, flutist, and keyboardist Sarah Martin. At times there were 9 performers on stage including a trumpeter, cellist, and backing band, it was quite a spectacle. They opened with the classic “Dog On Wheels” from their first EP of the same name released back in 1997. Following “I’m a Cuckoo”, “We Were Beautiful”, and fan favorite “She’s Losing It” Murdoch addressed the crowd. In his charming Scottish brogue, he shared that having never made it to New Haven prior to tonight he felt it only appropriate to reach deep into their songbook for classic songs he thought we’d enjoy, which garnered a roar from the crowd in response. The band appeared to break their set into 4 chapters if you will, each with between 3 and 5 songs. After each, they often switched instruments and locations on stage and the films that accompanied each song were evenly interspersed. The night almost felt like the concert version of a Wes Anderson film, it was very well done and always felt intentional. At times, the films took over my attention to a degree I wish they hadn’t but perhaps that was my issue.
Next up was another classic, “Seeing Other People” followed by “Sweet Dew Lee” and “I Don’t Love Anyone”. But before launching into “I Don’t Love Anyone” Murdoch was spitballing about The Doors of all bands and mentioned that it was in our current city, New Haven, where Jim Morrison was arrested for indecency among other charges. It felt odd but I guess made sense given that it was their first time in the Elm City. Little did we anticipate that during the next song they would embark on an interlude of The Door’ “Peace Frog”, whose lyrics recount the affair:
Blood in the streets in the town of New Haven
Blood stains the roofs and the palm trees of Venice
Blood in my love in the terrible summer
Bloody red sun of Phantastic L.A
The crowd quickly connected the dots and erupted in applause. This was somewhat of a turning point in the show where the crowd became more and more connected and involved, a brilliant tactic by the veteran Scots. Up next was “The Fox in the Snow” and other classics new and old such as “A Century of Fakers”, “The Boy With the Arab Strap”, “The Party Line”, and “Judy and the Dream of Horses”. During their final two songs Murdoch plucked a dozen or so lucky individuals from the crowd to join him and the band on stage. The stage looked like an impromptu dance party and while I never in a million years would have wanted to be up there, I have to admit it looked like everyone was really having a blast. Finally, for an encore, Murdoch took requests, two songs of the audience member’s choosing. How cool is that? Of course we’d all choose different songs but the two chosen were a bit of a mystery to me since as I mentioned before my Belle & Sebastian listening fell off a bit in 1999-2000. First up was “If She Wants Me” from 2000’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, which was followed by “I Didn’t See It Coming” from their 2010 release Belle and Sebastian Write About Love. Although the encores did not have the usual cache for me personally, I felt it was such a wonderful gesture to honor the requests of the chosen members of the audience and overall capped off an truly wonderful evening. Despite my initial blasé attitude toward seeing Belle & Sebastian, I can honestly say it was more than I’d imagined, way more. Catch them at a venue near you as they hop from city to city and festival to festival through the end of the month.