There have been little sparks of activity from Saint Etienne of late, namely the re release and remastering of aspects of their back catalogue. Foxbase Alpha has been given the obligatory tweak and will soon be available with a disc of bonus material that has been mined from the band’s archives.
In order to promote this and other upcoming re releases the band are out to play and I caught them at the Sheffield Leadmill. Saint Etienne are essentially playing Foxbase Alpha in its entirety, now even as a fan of their material I did ponder whether an album of this vintage would stand up to close scrutiny after this length of time, but I did come away from the experience pleasantly surprised.
The beauty of Saint Etienne live is the fact that they don’t strike you as traditional ‘pop stars’, even with Sarah Cracknell’s obvious smart chic glamour the band as a whole have an unassuming air. I’ve always thought they stood alone in the fact that they had a certain coolness about them that seemed effortless. I was never sure whether it came down to the almost trainspotterish regard the band had for their own musical influences. Maybe it was the romanticised pop of their singles which reach back through time and sneakily nod to their forebears bringing you the classic elements of what makes ‘good pop’ while bringing a slightly left field dash of modernity to proceedings
Maybe its all of these things and maybe it just doesn’t matter…
After the somewhat regal opening of ‘This Is Radio Etienne’ the band launch into their punchy cover of Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ which if anything now has a greater sense of familiarity than the original. Cracknell always had something of a cut glass vocal style which while effective on record you might not expect to stand up to close scrutiny in a live environment. I was proved wrong however as she moved effortlessly through the opener and followed with tracks like ‘Carnt Sleep’ and ‘Spring’ ably backed by Debsy who has quite a punch to her vocal and a presence on stage that seems to complete the live line up.
Those familiar with the album will note that their are a number of house tinged instrumental interludes that are peppered through the album. I wondered how effective they would be live but with a touch of minimal tweaking they worked well, Cracknell would move side stage while the Wiggs and Stanley took over and with a compliment of visual backdrops to compliment the songs. Tracks like ‘Wilson’ maintain a somewhat hypnotic charm while I’d forgotten just how brooding ‘Stoned To Say The Least was with its early almost Chicago house sensibilities. In conclusion the instrumentals do pick up a strength of their own when you listen to them in this way.
The crowd at the Leadmill were pretty much what I expected, there is undoubtedly a great affection for the band in the thirty something crowd but younger audiences seem to have passed them by which is a shame because with the current shifting musical tide they seem as relevant now as ever. Nonetheless the audience were up for it and by the time the band returned for their encore (notably ‘He’s On The Phone’) nobody was standing still.
All in all, Saint Etienne proved they can still carry off an everyman version of pop chic cool and with a back catalogue that demands and deserves reappraisal catching them live is always worth the admission price.