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It’s hard to listen to a Belle and Sebastian song without hearing it echo through the terrible plastic headphones I used to team up with an aging Walkman in high school (iPods are expensive on a snack bar employee salary), and holding a ticket that included the Scottish indie legends of yore in addition to Hoboken noise rockers Yo La Tengo stirred up a lot of latent teenage angst. Do I admit that I discovered these bands on a Gilmore Girls bender? Do I admit that I used to think “Piazza, New York Catcher” was about why Andrew didn’t have a crush on me and not gay baseball players? Youth is ignorant, guys, and it doesn’t pay close enough attention to lyrics.
Yo La Tengo played an hour at the top of the show, sticking mainly with tracks from this year’s release, Fade, putting special emphasis on leading single “I’ll Be Around”. With close to three decades of material under their belts and a reputation for having an eclectic repertoire of covers at their disposal, it seems like every Yo La Tengo comes with something new and different. Starting with lighter tracks from the new album and the always-mellow “Autumn Sweater”, the set was seemingly designed to descend into noise rock madness and lo-fi guitar solos a la Ira Kaplan, who began Yo La Tengo with his wife and drummer Georgia Hubley.
Kaplan, now in his mid-fifties, knows how bring a house (or very large tent) down better than ever on closing tracks “Ohm” and “Blue Line Swinger”, and it’s fun to watch the band communicate only with their eyes—okay, Kaplan’s done, now Hubley takes a quick drum solo, and bassist James McNew wraps the song. They’re a well-oiled noise machine with a weird sense of humor, perfect for ushering on the even weirder Belle and Sebastian ensemble on as the evening’s headliner. Kaplan talked sparingly throughout the show, but always with his signature casual weirdness—“It’s nice to be here at the Bank of America Pavilion,” he said before dedicating “The Point of It” to fellow band Dumptruck. “Definitely one of our favorite banks.”
After Yo La Tengo wrapped their final extended solos, Belle and Sebastian (which sports neither a Belle or a Sebastian, as is often confused) took the stage with a staggering thirteen-person ensemble, helmed as always by the inimitable Stuart Murdoch. He arrived armed with with three keyboards, three guitars, a full string section, and the occasional recorder or synth and seemed excited to take a free-form approach to building a set in his skinny jeans-pinstripe coat ensemble. Whether you like the music or not, it’s impossible to deny Murdoch’s infectious energy and frantic prancing through standbys like “Judy is a Dick Slap” and “I’m a Cuckoo”, occasionally deferring vocals to a bespectacled Stevie Jackson on “To Be Myself Completely”. Murdoch worked the crowd like a weird best friend, letting an audience member paint mascara on his face during choice lyrics in “Lord Anthony”, kicked beach balls into the audience, and occasionally leaping into the crowd to join in the revelry.
The Belle and Sebastian live experience doesn’t resemble your tragic high school Walkman—it’s alive, it’s fun, and they want to be there just as much as you do. Murdoch and Jackson bantered about their days at the Tea Party Museum and Harvard Square respectively, and Murdoch teased himself about the darker nature of his early material like “I Don’t Love Anyone”, a track written while he was still recovering from years of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in his twenties. Even the most searching, bleak source material turns into something danceable with a thirteen-man band backing it, and seats became superfluous from the moment they took the stage to the last syllable of “Judy and the Dream of Horses”.
Ninety minutes later, the band had blasted through “Piazza, New York Catcher”, an cowbell-driven disco rendition of “Your Cover’s Blown” rivaling the 80’s polish of a Talking Heads song, and a speedy encore of “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying”. Belle and Sebastian tracks hold up ten, fifteen years after release because they’re storytellers—there’s a discernible narrative in every song that listeners can connect with immediately, and it keeps you dancing whether you’re a weird Judy or a sexually confused athlete. Take that, Walkman!