The last time Belle & Sebastian played in Nottingham was at the Marcus Garvey Centre on 4th September 1998. Still something of a cult phenomenon at the time, their time in the (inter)national spotlight still to come, it will perhaps be remembered more for the support act, the late Elliott Smith, himself also relatively unknown in the UK at that point but with more songs in his canon back then. It was an unlikely setting for a gig such as this with technical issues causing problems throughout the headliners' set. Thankfully there would be no repeat this evening in the more appropriate surroundings of Rock City.
Nor with tonight's support act, Julien Baker. Born and bred in Memphis, this rare UK excursion opening for Glasgow's most commercially proficient independent troupe provided the perfect opportunity for Baker to showcase her talents to a wider audience, something she grasped with both hands. Taking the stage as a lonesome figure, the first thing noticeable as the opening bars of 'Turn Out The Lights' resemble a cathartic squeal is the brutal noise created by just one person. Playing her guitar through a combination of loops and pedals, this might be folk but not as we know it. There are elements of Dry era PJ Harvey in her make up, not to mention those early Josh T Pearson shows before Mute gave him the recording contract he so richly deserved.
Signed to Matador along with this evening's bill-toppers, Baker's eight-song set proved to be a masterclass in both execution and delivery. Drawing almost equally from her two albums to date, 2015's debut Sprained Ankle and last year's follow up and critically acclaimed breakthrough record Turn Out The Lights, not only do songs like 'Appointments' and 'Televangelist' demand your attention, her onstage demeanour exemplifies tranquility yet with an assured confidence to boot. It goes without saying you'll be hearing more from Julien Baker in the future. For now, anyone with tickets to any of the shows on the rest of this tour should get there early or be very disappointed.
Onto tonight's headliners; it's been a long wait for Belle & Sebastian to return to Nottingham so there's an understandable buzz of anticipation around their arrival. As with any band who can boast a career spanning over twenty years including nine albums along with dozens of singles and EPs along the way, everyone has their personal favourites, so it's to Belle & Sebastian's credit they opt to play a set containing material spanning their entire existence rather than primarily focus on their (admittedly excellent) recent trilogy of EPs.
Which isn't to say How To Solve Our Human Problems is ignored. Both parts one and two are represented by way of the chirpy 'Sweet Dew Lee' and 'We Were Beautiful' in the early part of the set while the slightly more introspective 'Show Me The Sun' and northern soul influenced 'The Same Star' also pack a hefty punch towards the latter half. With a settled line up that's been together over a decade and a half now, the septet slipped into their surroundings with consummate ease, Stuart Murdoch looking every bit the showman in his outrageous silver lamé jacket, something he makes reference to ("My wife said I shouldn't be wearing this now I'm married with two kids!") before unceremoniously disposing of it midset.
With each member playing prominent parts at various points of the show, Belle & Sebastian are something of a well oiled machine, a collaborative collective providing the perfect foil to Murdoch's accomplished showmanship. 'Nobody's Empire', one of three songs given an airing off 2015's Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance is as good an opener as it gets, sprightly and incisive from the word go, while the inclusion of 'Expectations' and 'We Rule The School' from 1996 debut Tigermilk, not to mention an almost unheard run out for 'Electronic Renaissance' from the same record prove an absolute delight. The latter in particular turns the Rock City dancefloor into a scene from Splash One (or one of its mid nineties equivalents) by way of its New Order influenced rhythm.
Never ones to disappoint the hardcore element of their fanbase, they also manage to throw in a couple of B-sides in the shape of 1997's 'Photo Jenny' and 2001's 'The Loneliness Of A Middle Distance Runner'. Celebratory and anything but the dour, twee antisocial geeks they're often made out to be, tonight's show removes any lingering stereotypes by the second, instead proving Belle & Sebastian to be one of the most engaging live acts on the planet. A band so charismatically proven during both the Stevie Jackson led 'Jonathan David' and penultimate number 'The Boy With The Arab Strap', where audience members are invited onstage (and do in numbers) to dance with their idols as the band deliver a rousing finale that's completed by an equally raucous run through of 'Legal Man', still their biggest selling single some eighteen years after its release.
Returning for an encore that sees 2014's 'The Party Line' segue effortlessly into a flawless performance of 'Dog On Wheels' from their first EP, Stuart Murdoch and his six accomplices can return to their beds earlier than usual for a Saturday night (a point he also makes during the set regarding the 10pm curfew because of the club night after), safe in the knowledge the twenty year gap between their first visit to the city and this evening was well worth the wait.
Photo Credit: Stephanie Webb.