Riv show confirms it: Belle and Sebastian can rock

March 12, 2006


Having great songs can be enough to carry indie-rock heroes to the level of, say, a sold-out show at Metro (capacity: 1,100).

But in order to captivate a crowd at a venue the size of the Riviera Theatre (capacity: 2,300), strong tunes alone aren't enough. A band needs passion, fervent commitment or celebratory enthusiasm and, most of all, an abundance of personality.

While they may have been sorely lacking in the past, Belle and Sebastian had these qualities in spades during a sold-out headlining performance at the Riv on Friday. But their equally acclaimed Matador Records label mates the New Pornographers fell sadly flat, even though they are touring behind their strongest album, 2005's "Twin Cinema."

It would be easy to blame the lackluster opening set on the absence of the pseudo-supergroup's two most personable part-time performers, powerhouse vocalist Neko Case and eccentric guitarist and vocalist Dan Bejar (though Chicagoan Nora O'Connor did make a welcome appearance). But the New Pornographers are really Carl Newman's band. He writes the best songs, keeps the project moving forward and clearly intends to build the group into a steady touring act: This was its third and biggest show in Chicago supporting the new disc.

No life in New Pornographers' set

For all of these ambitions, Newman delivered even the band's best songs -- including the indelible single "Sing Me Spanish Techno" -- with all of the enthusiasm of a guy standing in a laundromat, staring at the tiny window in the washing machine, waiting for the rinse cycle to finish. It was enough to make a diehard fan turn lukewarm well before the Vancouver sextet had finished its relatively short set.

On the other hand, even a committed hater would have left Belle and Sebastian's nearly two-hour show with a newfound appreciation for Glasgow's orchestral-pop septet.

Early in the group's career, circa 1996's underground favorite "If You're Feeling Sinister," bandleader Stuart Murdoch relied solely on his piercingly witty lyrics -- think of a less mopey or miserable Morrissey crossed with vintage Ray Davies -- and the group's fragile and oh-so-twee arrangements. As the musicians traded off on vocals and an array of instruments including violin, Hammond organ, melodica and trumpet, they showed all the subtlety of a band at a high school variety show, while Murdoch was prone to turning his back on the audience or shyly hiding behind his amp.

But something happened to Belle and Sebastian en route to the Riv. Its musical transformation began with 2003's more self-assured and focused, Trevor Horn-produced "Dear Catastrophe Waitress," and it is completed on the brilliant, very upbeat and very groovy new album "The Life Pursuit."

Fan lives dream, knocks 'em dead

Onstage, the band has become not only confident with but genuinely adept at its extensive junk-store stock of instruments, while Murdoch has turned into a thoroughly charming and absolutely electrifying performer.

As the band played a wide range of songs charting its extensive discography, from the opening "Expectations" off its first album "Tigermilk" through new album highlights "Sukie in the Graveyard" and "The Blues Are Still Blue," Murdoch joked with his fans, danced with gleeful abandon, flirted shamelessly, revealed new layers in the most precious and genteel acoustic tunes as well as the more rollicking dance tracks and eventually threw himself into the crowd.

The highlight of an evening that included many memorable moments came shortly before that unexpected stage dive when the bandleader granted a request made via a husband's e-mail. Murdoch hauled the man's wife, a Chicago fan named Amanda, onstage to sing the vocal part originally recorded by Monica Queen on the ultra-obscure title track of Belle and Sebastian's 1999 four-song EP, "Lazy Line Painter Jane."

Damn if Amanda didn't put the original to shame; the New Pornographers could have used a little of her electricity.

It was the sort of night that was full of surprises, all of them good for Murdoch and Belle and Sebastian, but considerably less so for Newman and the New Pornographers. Hopefully the latter were taking notes.