Belle & Sebastian and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Featuring the Shins

How many people in their lifetime can say they witnessed an indie-pop band perform with an orchestra behind them live in concert?  Probably just a few.  Let me narrow it down even more. What if the band was Belle & Sebastian, already halfway to an orchestra with seven strong on the brass and strings coupled with an opening act by the Shins? And what if the venue was the Hollywood Bowl, world famous for its symphonic acoustics and legendary orchestra? I think I can safely say I am one lucky girl, plus the other 18,000 people at the sold out concert on July 6th. 

Belle & Sebastian

The Hollywood Bowl is one of those special places in the world that gives you a powerful feeling of being alive.  As I sat on a simple wooden bench placed on the natural hillsides of Bolton Canyon, I thought of the legendary artists such as The Beatles and Billie Holiday who had performed and made their mark there decades before.  Many of the people, dressed in funky vintage clothing, were drinking fine wine and eating sandwiches.  There was a strong sense of excitement under the night's stars.  I knew this was not going to be an ordinary concert.

Belle & Sebastian formed in January 1996, in an all-night cafe in Glasgow, Scotland after Stuart Murdoch(singer/songwriter) and Stuart David (bass guitar) met on a government training scheme.  The 7-piece band is named after 'Belle et Sebastien,' a children's book by French writer Cecile Aubry.  The original members were Sarah Martin (violin), Stevie Jackson (guitar), Chris Geddes (keyboard), Stuart David (bass), Richard Colburn (drums) and Isobel Campbell (vocals and cello).  Their debut album, Tigermilk, was written and recorded in three days.  One thousand copies were released only on vinyl. The band started out seeking nothing more than a creative outlet, but by positive word of mouth, Belle & Sebastian quickly became a sensation. 

Belle & Sebastian in 1996 when they were just getting started.

The night kicked off with the lush, melodic, and sunny sounds of The Shins who played for about an hour.  The crowd stood and cheered after hearing songs from their new album and also their familiar songs from the Garden State Soundtrack.

The Shins

The stage cleared, and for the first time ever Belle & Sebastian, an indie-pop Scottish group, would mix their charming sounds with a full orchestra. It was an experiment of sound. Art by itself is an experiment, and the more elements you throw into the pot the more dangerous the reaction becomes. I wondered how all of these musical elements on stage would somehow harmonize together.

Orange, purple, and red colored lights lit up the stage to set the mood.  After the introduction song, Stuart Murdock (singer/songwriter) came out with a rounded top hat and a long-sleeved shirt with black and white horizontal stripes as if mimicking a mime.  'L.A. feels like our second home.  You do feel like our friends.  Digest your picnic, and join us for a dance later,' said Murdoch, in his Scottish accent.  The crowd cheered, then an anxious silence was cast over the crowd, eager to hear the sound of Belle & Sebastian backed up by 105 orchestra musicians. 

Four guitars were being strummed and Martin was shaking a maraca to the beat, as the orchestra carried the already powerful music deeper into the night's air.  It sounded jaunty, yet odd with sometimes jarring lyrics.   There was a sense of folk rock combined with 60's pop.

Throughout the years, the band members have changed.  David departed the band in 2000, and Campbell left in 2002.  Mick Cook (trumpet and bass) joined the group in 1998, and Bobby Kildea (guitar and bass) joined in 2001.  During their first two years in the public eye, the band shielded their personalities by submitting publicity photos featuring a girl that wasn't in the band who reluctantly posed for photo shoots. 

Belle and Sebastian's dreamy pop melodies overflowed into America, and now, a decade later, the original vinyl's can be purchased for up to £400 per copy.  Their sixth full-length album, The Life Pursuit, was recently released in 2006.  They are currently on an extensive North American tour, but will return to mainland Europe in May.

I looked into the sky, and there were skylights crossing over me forming an 'x.' I had seen them from the 101 before, but his time I was underneath them.  I was intrigued with how experimental they were with different kinds of sounds.  Their songs were delicate and gentle, yet bursted with power.  The crowd was subdued but completely focused on the music, soaking in every peak and valley and appreciating the performance.  People were dancing sporadically across the crowd.

Murdock told the crowd to give it up for the orchestra, 'It feels good to know they've got our back.'
He introduced the song 'Sukie In the Graveyard' by saying she was a real girl he once knew.  He said she was a raver in San Francisco who posed nude for a posh art institute for money.  Red lights and yellow fog flooded the stage.  Murdoch danced like his music -- in an eccentric way.  He did little jigs in circles around the stage. 

The stage turned blue as the music slowed down.  It's interesting to see how color combined with music can have such a strong effect on the tone of the crowd.  There was an American flag and a California state flag on opposite sides of the stage that were lightly swinging in the air seemingly synchronized with the crowd and music. They sang, 'Don't Leave the Light On Baby' as the people behind me gently sang along.  Someone yelled, 'Fucking brilliant!' and the crowd laughed.

Murdoch knew how to capture the audience's attention by including them in the show.  He asked the crowd of anyone would like to dance with him.  A girl frantically ran and desperately jumped onto the side of the stage.  She exhibited so much excitement as he spun her around.  The crowd clapped and cheered them on.

He asked the audience if anyone had a spare dress. Some girls were running to the front and willing to take off their dress, but he asked them not to.  He then asked for mascara.  A girl applied lip gloss and mascara on him.  He jokingly said, 'I'm cute.'  As he sang, 'Lord Anthony,' he kneeled to the audience and held the dress to his chest.  He looked extremely dramatic with the black mascara smudged on the top of his cheek. 

The whole night, everyone was entertained by these incredibly talented musicians.  It was so innovative and modern, like taking a breath of fresh air in the music world. Hearing their live experimentations made me appreciate them in a much deeper way than would have possible solely from listening to their albums. The albums are excellent, but Belle & Sebastian are about creative freedom and experimental sounds which only a live performance can fully communicate.  

As I left the concert and merged onto the 101, I could see the lights stretched across the Hollywood Bowl again, but this time they meant something. Now they remind me of my night of musical experimentation, a world premiere of sight and sound of which I could be a part of and indisputably embedded into its history and experience. Yeah, I am one lucky girl.


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