Remember live music, anyone? Deprived of the live gig experience since March I’m enduring my longest stretch without seeing a band in-person since birth to AC/DC. Even socially distanced streamed shows are not cutting the mustard – perhaps the pop equivalent of a rail replacement service.
Despite me rinsing the living daylights out of Belle and Sebastian’s late 90’s jewels If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy with The Arab Strap, I never witnessed one of their live shows at the time. I do however recall being dismayed at reading decidedly mixed reviews, their broad inference a somewhat shy band struggling to recreate their sprawling kitchen-sink indie sound within less-than-forgiving venue acoustics. Luckily, my faith was restored watching a stellar streamed performance at the 6music Festival of 2017, complete with the most civilized stage invasion ever witnessed in the history of pop.
Alas, Stuart David and Isobel Campbell have departed the band’s definitive line-up. Fortunately, the core of Stuart Murdoch, Steve Jackson, Chris Geddes, Richard Colburn, Sarah Martin, and Micky Cooke have steadfastly remained on board the good ship B&S for the intervening twenty or so years. Unsurprisingly, with so much unblemished chemistry to draw on, What to Look for in Summer serves everyone a timely reminder of what we’ve all been missing over the last nine or so months.
Any shortfall in atmospheric continuity from say, a single show recording, is countered in spades by the quality of delivery of the material on this double live album, originally planned for fans only. We’re also served a touch of improvisation, mainly adroit swipes at leading political figures. Naturally, it’s still brimming with fan favourites including ‘Seeing Other People’, ‘The Fox in the Snow’ and ‘The Boy Done Wrong Again’, a testament to the band’s strength in depth. Interestingly, the whole shebang is introduced by a specially recorded cover of Kenneth Mackellar’s Caledonian standard ‘Song of the Clyde’, a fitting curtain-raiser.
Released by Matador Records just last month with a working title of ‘Live and Meticulous’, de-facto band leader Stuart Murdoch wisely thought better of it. Additional promotion came in the form of a brace of live videos. The much loved ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ and Tigermilk’s ‘My Wandering Days are Over’, the two tracks in question, both captured at the B&S ‘Boaty Weekender’ appearance. The customary crowd incursion for ‘Arab Strap’ sounded like it was in full force too, at one point Murdoch clearly attempting to capture the moment with a selfie. Largely curated from recordings gleaned from their 2019 North American tour as well as the aforementioned floating Mediterranean festival, What to Look for in Summer, as with a lot of live records, sometimes suffers a little from cut and shut syndrome.
The listener may also crave the odd notable omission. The band performed ‘I’m a Cuckoo,’ ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane,’ ‘The Stars of Track and Field’ and ‘Judy and the Dream of Horses’ at various points on this tour, the recordings failing to make the cut here. Admittedly, that is probably picky me proving a little churlish during the strangest Yuletide for 75 years or more. Ironically, Murdoch turning down an audience requesting ‘I Fought in a War’ is waved through, his sage reply “That’s another one we won’t be playing tonight”, a telling inclusion from a frontman, clearly at ease with his surroundings, and confident everyone will be going home with beaming smiles regardless of any setlist grumbles.
The thinking person’s The Beautiful South if you ask me.
Words by Michael Price
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