Listening to Saint Etienne’s cover of Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart is a transporting experience.
The threesome’s sultry electropop sheen renders this and the rest of tonight’s recreation of debut album Foxbase Alpha carefree, glamorous, timeless. And yet their journey began in Croydon – a place which, with the best will in the world, could never be described in such terms.
Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs are half-lit behind banks of synths on the snazzy Bloomsbury Ballroom’s stage, the better to spotlight ageless lynchpin yummy mummy Sarah Cracknell in her knock-’em-dead tweed trouser suit.
Behind her, tape reels spool; and behind them, visuals of brutalist architecture, dancing teens and pop culture icons come and go.
Heavenly first released Foxbase Alpha back in 1991 – “18 years, eh?” says Sarah, shaking her head – and the remastered version, together with last year’s ‘best of’ album London Conversations, is primed to introduce this most London of bands to a new generation of fans. Yet while the audience are avidly attentive, their general age seems nearer to the band’s than any prospective new target market seeking laid back indie dance interpretations. Saint Etienne’s fanbase, if not new, are demonstrably loyal.
They’re here tonight to hear that debut album in its entirety and that’s what they get, from This Is Radio Etienne’s perfect fanfare introduction to the haunting, echo-laden coda Dilworth’s Theme. Instrumental centrepiece Stoned To Say The Least sounds the most refreshed for the time away, a subtly constructed and extended mix of looped bass, quiet percussion and long synthy notes giving way to occasional marimba and piano phrases that, live, suggests Orbital inhabiting a chillout room.
Girl VII live, like on the remastered recording, somehow sounds bigger than before; the beats cause Sarah to shake her golden mane from side to side as she reads out a list of London locations from a clipboard – “I could never remember all of those,” she quips. Sunshine plays out with a folk dancing scene from The Wicker Man lending an edge to the silky smooth sound, while Etienne Gonna Die’s stark synth loop suggests a base for Thomas Newman‘s later American Beauty theme tune Dead Already.
During instrumental numbers Sarah and backing vocalist Debsey Wykes sit at the side of the stage, letting the boys play with their toys; inevitably it’s during the vocal numbers that the band seem like a complete unit rather than a Chemical Brothers/Basement Jaxx electro duo. Spring and She’s The One bring the four participants back together again.
At the close of the Foxbase Alpha material there’s a “short interval”, as Sarah puts it, during which we’re treated to a Daffy Duck cartoon while she fetches a feather boa and a glass of champagne from somewhere – “It’s Pete’s birthday!” – and the band ready themselves for an encore of career-spanning hits.
Heart Failed In The Back Of A Taxi gives way to the recent Richard X collaboration Method Of Modern Love, reminding that Pet Shop Boys are not the only established electro whizzes unaverse to roping in big-name collaborators. A well received Who Do You Think You Are gives way to the arpeggiated insistence of Like A Motorway and the glam-era piano intro of Sylvie – dedicated by Sarah to “dancing bunnies and disco queens”.
A second encore inevitably brings us their most memorable hit, He’s On The Phone, which is as well received as ever. And then they’re off, though the audience stays rooted to the floor, refusing to move even when the house lights come on to a chorus of boos. They’re switched off again – chorus of cheers – and then back on again, to more boos. This was a set of songs that have soundtracked lives. It was hardly surprising that Saint Etienne left their audience wanting more.