Pairing Scottish minstrels Belle & Sebastian with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl might seem like a far-fetched idea at first glance.
After all, bands that usually get symphonic treatment on stage tend to be much more progressive rock-oriented than these wistful, folk-oriented lads and lasses from Glasgow. Belle & Sebastian are longtime cult favorites that usually perform at small and mid-size theaters, not at massive 18,000 seat venues like the Hollywood Bowl.
However, this unlikely scenario did in fact play out July 6 at the Hollywood Hills venue in front of a large, picnic-toting crowd. Initially, the eight-member ensemble seemed a bit overwhelmed by its surroundings and circumstances. Frontman Stuart Murdoch commented early on in the show about the band being out of its normal element.
The group’s playing seemed a bit tentative and its stage presence unsure as it attempted to deliver its soft, delicate material to those fans in the upper reaches of the imposing outdoor amphitheatre. The orchestra was also a bit of a non-factor early on as it floated unobtrusively in and out of songs.
Perhaps not wanting to overwhelm the severely outnumbered band and its introspective spirit, the formally clad symphony seemed to lack much character and assertiveness as it added bits of sonic color, but not much musical definition.
Much of Belle & Sebastian’s music simply doesn’t possess the type of dynamic range and grandeur that naturally complements a full-size orchestra. Still, there is a classical, chamber music air to the group, which includes a cello player, a violinist and a bass player who doubles on trumpet. So as the evening progressed, the band and orchestra seemed to find a more firm common ground that was mutually complementary.
The music seemed to really click when Belle & Sebastian launched into more celebrative tunes like the jaunty “Dear Catastrophe Waitress.” With these songs the orchestra seemed to come appropriately alive. Another saucy number had pockets of the crowd up and dancing in the aisles.
Nevertheless, Belle & Sebastian isn’t a dance band. Its reflective lyrics tend to strike most deeply with those with poetic, often misunderstood souls who see themselves as existing outside of the mainstream consciousness. In this way, the band is an heir to such sensitive bard-musicians like Leonard Cohen and Morrissey.
Even though the Hollywood Bowl audience was rather sedate, it would be a mistake to believe that fans weren’t moved by the band’s performance. Belle & Sebastian directs its music and lyrics more to the heart and soul than it does to primal instincts.
Mixing jangly pop-rock songs with heavier, mid-tempo selections, the Shins also performed that night with a very appealing set of modern rock sprinkled with nostalgia. Obviously aware that the Beatles had performed at the Bowl in the ’60s wearing matching suits, the quartet chose to don matching olive-colored shirts. Hints of ’60s psychedelia and cool vocal harmonies made the Shins appear as if they could have easily been a hit forty years ago. But clearly the appeal of its sometimes-delectable song craft is timeless.