Between the twin summits of 1994’s Tiger Bay – a perfect synthesis of folkish melodies and the hi-NRG heartbreak of the following year’s eternally gorgeous He’s On The Phone – and 1998’s swinging, soulful Good Humor, Sarah Cracknell took advantage of a break in Saint Etienne’s busy schedule to record her solo début.
A little uneven – never quite striking a balance between glittering techno-pop and grand, Dusty-like balladry – Lipslide was more than worth the price of admission for the glorious Ready Or Not; a swooning, life-affirming hug of a song, it was recently revived as part of bandmate Pete Wiggs’ superb score to How We Used To Live, the band’s fourth film with documentarist Paul Kelly.
While the band took another breather from the studio, following 2012’s fairly definitive Words and Music By Saint Etienne, Cracknell made a second album, this year’s quietly lovely Red Kite. Reflective and bucolic, perhaps informed by its genesis in a barn in rural Oxfordshire, she worked here with members of Welsh indie-poppers Colorama and folk duo The Rails; most of them join her at London’s Cadogan Hall tonight.
A former New Christian Science church, it’s not for nothing that this grand, Byzantine-styled Hall is the home ground of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and the six-piece band make the most of the venue’s natural acoustics. Beginning with Miles Apart, a song by Cracknell favourites Shack, and an outing for Etienne b-side 4.35 In The Morning, the remainder of the set was drawn mostly from Red Kite.
On The Swings, with its haunting, John Barry-esque central theme, the tearstained Hearts Are For Breaking (Stuart Murdoch meets Hatch & Trent) and the sunshine pop of It’s Never Too Late are early, ‘60s tinged highlights, the material a perfect match for Cracknell’s voice. Later, I Am Not Your Enemy is sultry, with Bond theme guitars – Saint Etienne being among many artists beaten to the 007 punch – while Take The Silver’s multi-part harmonies are fittingly festive, given the looming presence of the Christmas tree above the stage.
Following the Latin flavoured Dive, there are whoops and seated dancing from the crowd as the band segue smoothly into Good Humor’s Sylvie, recast as stomping soul, with the driving percussion of The Four Seasons’ Beggin’. There are further treats for the devoted in the encore, as long-time Etienne cohort Debsey Wykes appears for a triumphant take on Ready Or Not, twin trumpets substituted for sighing strings. Telling us that her son cheekily pointed out that Saint Etienne’s first single (on which Mum did not appear, having joined as the third ‘guest vocalist’) had had over two million YouTube views, Cracknell leads the band into an excellent version of Only Love Can Break Your Heart, closer to Neil Young’s original yet entirely her own.
It’s a fitting closer: if Lipslide didn’t quite escape the shadow of her band’s work, tonight’s set celebrated Red Kite’s weightlessly pretty departure. If Saint Etienne are now to reconvene for album number nine, Cracknell has reminded us all that she’s much more than singer number three.