At the close of Heavenly Records’ three-day coming-of-age bash at London’s Southbank Centre, Saint Etienne take to the stage of the all-seater Queen Elizabeth Hall and tentatively get their set underway.
The place is packed, but the venue’s layout makes for an odd place in which to stage a band who rely as much on rhythm as on Sarah Cracknell’s semi-spoken coos and sensuous whispers.
Her voice is lost in the mix of guitars, bass and drums. On record, including those albums Saint Etienne released through Heavenly, Cracknell’s vocals float above the mix. Here the murk is palpable.
Ahead of the release of their retrospective album London Conversations, one of many Saint Etienne records not to be released on Heavenly, the gig tonight is a chance to appraise just how Saint Etienne have lasted so long – 17 years since their debut, if truth be told. Back then Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs were a duo; Sarah Cracknell joined later. But with a combination of wry lyrics, dancey tunes, an ability to transcend both electro and acid jazz pigeonholing and sheer staying power the band are now fast becoming a London institution.
The band tonight are a seven-piece, including a glitter-clad waif on backing vocals, a drummer whose position stage right allows the eletronica controllers to work alongside each other at the back. The soupy sound maybe has nothing to do with the odd layout, but we try to forget its shortcomings and focus on some of Saint Etienne’s gilt-edged poptastica.
Then suddenly things take an anarchic turn. Action deploys some rude flange which proves enough for a couple of daring types to not just stand but head down to the stage and begin some shy dance moves. Venue staff immediately appear to urge that seats be retaken, but Sarah Cracknell’s having none of that. She dismisses the jobsworths and immediately the rest of the audience take the cue to start moving too. From what was looking like a missed opportunity comes a moment of genius, even if the sound is still dire.
Only Love Can Break Your Heart, New Thing, Who Do You Think You Are and a revitalised version of Burnt Out Car follow. The visuals consist of iconographic images of 20th Century influences – Elvis Presley fills the screen at one point. Such choice of backing underlines that Saint Etienne have always been commentators on culture and their environment and are about events past as much as music present.
By now the standing audience towards the stage are absorbing the sound mix, leaving those at the back with an even less perfect experience, but Stars Above Us and Teenage Winter transcend it all and strut purposefully forth. It all adds up to a qualified, imperfect success.