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live music review: belle and sebastian, the forum, march 12

I’ve always kind of had this idea in my head that going to a Belle and Sebastian show would be a bit like stepping through the looking glass. A special, dream-like world where lonely souls come together in their best vintage dresses and kooky hats, embracing strangers like long lost twins, singing along and dancing like dervishes to ‘Judy and the Dream of Horses.’

As it turns out, there was no ‘Judy and the Dream of Horses’ this time, but the overall atmosphere of the Forum on Saturday night definitely had that distinctive Belle and Sebastian charm.

When the stage lit up and the synth-pop swell of ‘I Didn’t See it Coming’ filled the room, it was just too easy to be swept away into a reverie. Sarah Martin’s soft, yearning whisper, “Make me dance, I want to surrender” summed up the atmosphere perfectly.

Everything about Belle and Sebastian is utterly cute and charming, with a strange sense of familiarity that somehow makes you nostalgic for things that have never happened. They delivered that sweet quirkiness with a comforting mix of old and new songs, from the likes of ‘Step into my Office, Baby’ and ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’ to newer tracks from their 2010 release Write About Love.

While it took much of the crowd a few songs to loosen up and dance, the sense of community soon started to awaken. Lead vocalist Stuart Murdoch was all charm and chattiness, playfully bantering with the audience in his soft Scottish lilt between songs, and even inviting a small number people to come up and dance on the stage. The sing-a-long factor during ‘I’m Not Living the Real World’ was wonderfully twee and fun. And if you could get through ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ without either ecstatically hugging the stranger next to you or weeping from the overwhelming cuteness of it all, it was a spectacular feat of restraint.

Belle and Sebastian have a way of reaching into you and touching that deeply pitted sense of loneliness, then making you feel like it’s all okay, because we all feel it too. We all sing along to ‘Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,’ and it becomes positively merry and delightful, because somehow, despite all their melancholy brooding, Belle and Sebastian’s music is full of playfulness and kitschy charm. The way the band interacts with one another on stage, dancing around and swapping and sharing instruments, reflects their inherently fun-loving and down-to-earth nature.

Towards the end of the show, the delightful garden-party vibe was so strong that not even the staunchest critic could still accuse Belle and Sebastian of simply making sad music for sad people. A gloriously fun rendition of The Kinks’ ‘Victoria’ brought a bit of patriotic cheer, and when they returned for ‘The Blues are Still Blue’ the feeling was high, the crowd was loud, and the dancing was most definitely on.

Whether you were there because you used to spend gloomy high school nights moping to ‘Lord Anthony’, or because ‘Come on Sister’ is your number one party song of the moment (or most likely, for both those reasons) it was hard not to be charmed by Belle and Sebastian’s satisfyingly sweet serenade. And as we drifted out the doors onto Flinders St, it did feel a little like stepping out of the looking glass – and I can’t wait to go back through it again.

(Image credit: Zahra Khamissa)

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