By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Mar 12, 2006 at 5:29 AM

"We’ve never before been to Milwaukee, or even Wisconsin, and look at all of you who came out to see us," the uber charming Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch says to a completely sold out audience at the Riverside Theater Saturday night.

The band may have never been to Milwaukee, but it had done its homework. Murdoch’s commentary between songs perpetually referenced things notably Milwaukee, such as "Happy Days" and the Violent Femmes, whose music he admitted to frequently spinning when he was a club DJ in Glasgow in the ‘80s.

"Well that certainly shows you how old I am," he says bashfully. "And we won’t be covering any Violent Femmes songs tonight," he responds to random crowd requests for "Blister in the Sun."

Cover songs are completely out of the question for a band with a decade’s worth of material to sift through. "Act of Apostle" opened the set, and although being amazingly courteous to crowd requests, it wasn’t until very late in the evening that Belle & Sebastian got around to playing anything off 2003’s "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" -- limited to only "I’m a Cuckoo" and "If You Find Yourself Caught In Love." When requests came for "Step Into My Office, Baby," Murdoch quipped, "We’ve got too many songs; I think we’ve forgotten how to play that one."

The reality is that there wasn’t much it could play that would have disappointed the energetic crowd. Oozing wit and allure, Murdoch presented himself and his band as surprisingly accessible and humble for a group who has arguably altered, and in many ways, paved the path for independent music.

He had the crowd in the palm of his hand. When he spoke -- his thick Scottish accent sounding soft but sure -- the room hushed and when he spontaneously selected a handful of people to join him on stage for what he called "a bit of interpretive dancing" as he played “Sukie in the Graveyard," there was no mass rushing of the stage. Almost like a school teacher, Murdoch politely asked those in front to raise their hands if they wished to come up on stage and proceed to call on them one by one.

Murdoch has the playful presence of a young boy and when he and Stevie Jackson get to dancing, which is most of the time, it’s like the jerky, stop/start motions of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis meets Michael Stipe in his "Losing my Religion" era. Like the energetic feel of its latest release suggests, Belle & Sebastian curated, for the most part, a two-hour dance party. "Electronic Renaissance" transformed the scene into one that easily could have been plucked out of a post-punk, pre-rave club circa 1986, and Sarah Martin’s angelic "bat-bat-bahs" introducing "We Are the Sleepyheads" was enough to make security usher dancers out of the aisles.

Like Belle & Sebastian, openers The New Pornographers, one of many great bands sent to us from our neighbors to the north, also started its set with the first song, "Twin Cinema," off its newest release of the same name.

The six of them, lined up side by side, plowed through their powerful yet poppy songs without much interruption. In the absence of vocalist Neko Case, who is making a solo appearance at the Pabst Theater on March 30, a lovely and confident Kathryn Calder proved a sufficient female complement to frontman A.C. Newman.

Still, when one is accustomed to unmistakable sound of Ms. Case, Calder’s performance couldn’t help but come across as a Case cover -- and it didn’t help that someone slacked on the stage lighting, leaving Newman in half-light and Calder completely in the dark.

Regardless, it’s somewhat rare than the opening act draws as much attention as the headliner, which The New Pornographers seemed to achieve, and even through the shadows the songs shone bright.

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”