THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “All live records are a time capsule to some extent, but Belle and Sebastian’s What To Look For In Summer is perhaps a bit more evocative than originally planned. “We’d been badgered by our fan base to put out recordings of the shows,” frontman Stuart Murdoch teases. So they began multi-tracking their 2019 tour, including all three sets from the Boaty Weekender festival, which took place on a cruise ship. Which of those things feels more like an out-of-reach fantasy right now, simply seeing some live music, a festival, or getting on a cruise ship?
Whatever your answer, What To Look For In Summer takes you there. With COVID-19 cancelling not only 2020 live shows, but Belle and Sebastian’s plans to make a new record in Los Angeles, what started out as a between-albums, “for-the-heads” release wound up getting a bit more care and attention. “It was something to focus on,” says Stevie Jackson. “That was very, very nice.” Echoes Sarah Martin: “It was quite nice to be doing that when we couldn’t even see each other.”
When Murdoch polled fans on Twitter, most said that their favorite live LPs were of a single concert. But hey, the fans don’t get to make the set list either. The band decided picking the best recordings from different shows was the way to go, taking their inspiration from such live albums as Yes’s Yessongs and Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous. “For a while, the working title of the record was Live and Meticulous,” Murdoch says. “The record company really wanted it to be called Live and Meticulous. But I don’t like derivative things really.”
Neither a retrospective nor a back-door greatest-hits, What To Look For In Summer is the sound of a band that’s always moving forward, a picture of Belle and Sebastian in 2019 that gives equal weight to early days (My Wandering Days Are Over, Seeing Other People) and recent years (Poor Boy, We Were Beautiful), with a track selection Murdoch says was almost random. I’m a Cuckoo, #2 on the band’s setlist stats, didn’t even make the cut. But you get three songs from 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant.
You also get a full picture of a group that’s always been built around Murdoch’s songs, but has three other writers in Jackson, Martin and guitarist Bobby Kildea (with all songwriting credits shared by the entire band). Martin, in particular, has become more and more prolific as a songwriter and lead vocalist over the past decade — her I Didn’t See It Coming, with its indelible refrain (“make me dance/I want to surrender”) is always a highlight, as is her show stopping vocal on Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John, originally sung by Norah Jones on 2010’s Write About Love. “It’s always a little bit of a moment when she steps up and goes into the song,” says Murdoch.
Once a more introspective live group (Stuart’s staying in and he thinks it’s a sin/That he has to leave the house at all,” they sang on 1998’s This is Not a Modern Rock Song) Belle and Sebastian’s live shows for the past two decades have featured both an incredibly high level of musicality and a bit of a variety-show vibe. At one point on the album, Murdoch wonders why the band stopped its tradition of having someone bring gin cocktails to the stage mid-set. “It just feels like you’re having your friends around for dinner and you want everything to be right,” he says. “No matter how miserable your songs are maybe most of the fans have learned to love these songs in a bedroom or a kitchen — when you come out to a show, it’s a different thing. You just want everybody to feel good.”
Never is that more true than towards the end of every show. The Boy With The Arab Strap is both Belle and Sebastian’s Born To Run — they’re never not gonna play it — and their Dancing in the Dark to the nth degree, as scores of fans end up on stage for a bit of participatory dancing. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime highlight for the kids, an occasional nightmare for the band’s production manager, and the greatest bit of fun for everybody else. Sometimes Jackson has to fight his way through the dancers to get back to the mic for his harmony vocals, while Martin gets a close-up view of people surrounding Murdoch on stage, or sometimes even hijacking the song. “I kind of enjoy it when people overstep the line,” Martin admits. “But not with me!”
Murdoch never gets tired of playing it. “I genuinely look forward to it,” he says. “If the concert’s going great, it just feels like a natural vibe. And if the concert’s going OK — maybe it’s a Sunday night and everybody’s a little bit flat, or still in their seats — it’s definitely the time to send it home.” He also never gets tired of playing, period. “Touring the band is something that I never thought we’d do. It’s turned into the thrill of a lifetime, really, in a manifest, physical way. It’s just the nicest experience that I think I’ve had in my life.”