Review: Belle & Sebastian, The Sage Gateshead

Belle & Sebastian invited members of the crowd onstage as part of their show at The Sage. Pic: Fiona Thompson.
Belle & Sebastian invited members of the crowd onstage as part of their show at The Sage. Pic: Fiona Thompson.

Belle & Sebastian have never been the most conventional of groups, and anyone who came to The Sage expecting a career Best Of will have left disappointed.

Instead, the show was one for the connoisseurs; an alternative approach that’s served the Glaswegians well in more than two decades as Britain’s most beloved indie-pop treasure.

Belle & Sebastian.

Belle & Sebastian.

From those unlikely college project beginnings, the key to their longevity has lain in the understated genius of Stuart Murdoch’s songwriting; a trump card which continues to pull crowds and has long outlasted many more commercially successful contemporaries.

Those in their seats early were in for a bonus treat too, courtesy of Memphis singer-songwriter Julien Baker.

A hugely acclaimed artist in her own right, the 22-year-old is riding high on the back of last year’s much-heralded sophomore Turn Out The Lights, and for the uninitiated this support slot proved a wondrous introduction.

On record her emotive vocals can seem somewhat overwrought, but tonight’s dialled-down melancholy is pitch perfect; initially via her solo guitar and key loops, and later with the backing of violinist Camille Faulkner.

Belle & Sebastian themselves also arrive with new material in tow, in the form of a trilogy of EPs issued under the blanket moniker How To Solve Our Human Problems.

In truth the project is far from their finest work, yet there are choice cuts which slot comfortably into their set - most notably the effective indie/electro hybrid We Were Beautiful and the devilishly groovy Poor Boy.

The real joy of this show, though, is its unpredictability, and such is the depth of their catalogue that much of their performance feels like a randomly assorted pick and mix.

You’re more or less guaranteed the stonewall classics I’m A Cuckoo and The Boy With The Arab Strap, but beyond that it’s open season.

There’s nothing, for instance, from their most enduring record, 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, while opener Nobody’s Empire is the only survivor from their most recent full-length, 2015’s laudable Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance.

What we do get nevertheless takes in the breadth of their career. Those magical early years are represented by delightful nuggets She’s Losing It and Expectations, while popular album tracks Sukie In The Graveyard and Stay Loose fly the flag for their excellent mid-‘00s period.

There’s some true deep cuts too, including one of the earliest songs they ever put to tape in String Bean Jean.

Best of all is Piazza, New York Catcher, a big fan favourite which they lavish with a dynamic new arrangement, adding further sparkle to one of their most sublime moments.

Having rounded out their main set with the customary joyous stage invasion, the group’s unscripted encore draws a shower of requests, from predictable cornerstones to songs they’ve never, ever played live.

Those clamouring for Me And The Major, Lazy Line Painter Jane et al will have to come back next time – with such a heavy turnover, there’s every chance they’ll get lucky!

Belle & Sebastian.

Belle & Sebastian.

Belle & Sebastian at The Sage Gateshead.

Belle & Sebastian at The Sage Gateshead.

Belle & Sebastian made good use of local imagery as big-screen backdrops for their show at The Sage. Pic: Fiona Thompson.

Belle & Sebastian made good use of local imagery as big-screen backdrops for their show at The Sage. Pic: Fiona Thompson.