Belle & Sebastian stinking up the Pabst Theater - photo by Sal Serio
* NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED HEREIN ARE SOLELY MY OWN, AND FROM MY GUT AFTER EXPERIENCING THIS CONCERT. MY OPINIONS DO NOT REFLECT THOSE OF MAXIMUM INK, IT’S STAFF, ADVERTISERS, OR OWNERS.
I’m not sure who else recalls the sad condition of 1970s and 80s concerts when the headlining band would deliberately sabotage the opening group in various ways to ensure they would not be upstaged, but it seems those days have not entirely gone away.
Truth be told, many elements of this concert pairing befuddled me. Diminutive yet charismatic Australian rocker Courtney Barnett has been surfing a wave of popularity, topping the CMJ charts, and appearing on major late night television programs. Yet, she was opening for boring old fart Scottish band Belle And Sebastian? And, even more odd, the concert was not an immediate sell-out in the medium sized Pabst Theater? In Milwaukee? On a Friday night? When I say “WTF” I do not mean “Wednesday Thursday Friday”, folks.
At any rate, I was glad to secure a decent seat on the lower level of the wonderful Pabst Theater, and settled in for a kick-ass show. I know many others were there solely to see Courtney Barnett, as I most certainly was. Promptly at the 8:00 hour, with no fanfare or introduction, Courtney and her two backing musicians ambled on to the stage. The lighting was deep red and there was fog machine haze in the air, which made it a little difficult to see the group, even in an intimate setting.
The first three numbers Barnett played were quite unlike the rollicking indie-rock that has made her such a media darling. In fact, they were downright melancholy, and I kept wondering when a spotlight would be pointed in her direction, or at least the lights brightened up to a reasonable degree. It did not happen. Finally, the group lurched in to “Elevator Operator”, a more upbeat song from the hit record ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’, and the assembled fans reacted ravenously. Immediately upon that song’s conclusion, my companions and I noticed drummer Dave Mudie hold up ten fingers in a motion that grabbed Barnett’s attention. What could that mean? Surely not “ten more minutes”, as the show was just getting going. I think most in attendance were expecting a 50 minute to hour long opening set.
After a speedy run-through of “Depreston”, Barnett introduced Mudie and bassist Bones Sloane, and gave a somewhat tentative thank you to Belle And Sebastian for having them on the tour (“because they’re, uh, really, uh…. good”), before the band lit in to “Avant Gardener” and really got cooking, including some wild fuzzed out guitar playing courtesy of Ms. Barnett. Then… done. Split. Out of here. Wait… what? A half hour set? By the hottest act in college rock? It stunk of an insecure headlining act not tolerating their momentum being compromised by an opener who was better than they are. Everything pointed in that direction. The bogus lighting, the limited stage space, the somewhat dour mood Barnett and company projected during the first few songs they played, and a goddamn half hour set.
There was no “Pedestrian At Best”. No “Aqua Profunda”. No hour long set!
This concert hadn’t sold out anyway, but the hall began to clear out in earnest after a couple of songs by Belle And Sebastian, who came off as having missed the boat by a few decades. The world already had a Dexy’s Midnight Runners, okay? We certainly do not need to go THERE again! Lead vocalist Stuart Murdoch had this smug attitude throughout their nearly TWO HOUR set, dancing about like he thought his crapola emitted an aura of jasmine, and pulling obviously staged “fans” out of the crowd to dance and prance about with him, and generally further feed his overblown ego. I just felt truly sorry for those who had paid top dollar for tickets and traveled some distance to see Barnett this evening, because, thanks to Belle And Sebastian, those rock fans got shafted. Bamboozled. Screwed, if you will.
Do I sound like I’m giving a big “fuck you” to Belle And Sebastian? Good. Because I am! Granted, the decision to limit the opening act as much as possible may have been directed by their management rather than the band themselves, but still… their pompous air and overly orchestrated performance did not help to gain this writer’s favor.
Look at it this way. So, you’re in a group that’s pretty much yesterday’s egg foo young anyway. That’s fine, keep on keeping on, do what you do, and your hardcore audience will still always come out… providing the ticket price is reasonable (ahem, ahem). If you’re FORTUNATE enough to get a hot opening group to tour with you, use that to your advantage! Give the opener equal billing, SUPPORT them, and encourage them. Maybe even share some stage time with them. Had Belle And Sebastian given any of these concepts serious consideration, I would have walked away with newfound respect for them, rather than the utter disdain and nausea that is my takeaway instead. I’ll say it again: fuck you, Belle And Sebastian. To Courtney Barnett and band: hang in there. Ride over these speed bumps with dignity and don’t let the screws hold you back. Do what YOU do best, and the fans will always love you for it. I hope to see her back as a headliner some time very soon.