Christmas time is here again, a time of traditions, of annual get-togethers to take comfort in the familiar, unflinching and unchanging within a rapidly changing world.
One such activity that has become an annual tradition is the Saint Etienne holiday tour, the first acceptable weekend for a Christmas party, and luckily for the trio, the Manchester crowd have brought their dancing shoes. This year their tour is twofold, as in addition to the yearly festivities, the group are showcasing their latest LP Home Counties.
Support band The Clientele compliment Saint Etienne perfectly, as the Surrey trio (in fact, almost every musician here tonight is from Surrey) provide a pastoral jangle not unlike the artists of Postcard Records in the early 1980s, or Sarah Records a couple of years later (these are important, we’ll come back to that later).
The Byrd-sian cascading guitar lines, soaked in reverb, are deceptively intricate, adding depth and colour on top of the grooving, anchoring bass and gently lilting drums. Singer Alasdair MacLean brings an swooning, sighing quality to his vocals, not unlike the great Lawrence of Felt (another big influence), as the C86 stylings of The Clientele shined through in shimmering instrumental passages, almost like sunlight through leaves. The Clientele are a little at odds with the theme of the night (and by extension the tour)- their music is brimming with genuine warmth, perfect for springtime.
(The Christmas party atmosphere was brought in courtesy of Recordsville Social, who were able to keep the crowd’s spirits high with an eclectic if leftfield mix of hits from the 60s through to the early 90s from Edison Lighthouse through to Stereolab via Aztec Camera and The Crystals, all original vinyl. Nicely done!)
Like Rachel’s memory of the spider egg in Blade Runner, Saint Etienne craft false memories of places and times through their songs which are so incredibly vivid and detailed, they are able to leave an indelible print within the mind’s eye of the listener, for lack of a better term, they feel ‘real’- debut album Foxbase Alpha and 2003’s Tales From Turnpike House being the most obvious. Saint Etienne, while from the Home Counties (hence the album), are a London band- but it’s a London that doesn’t exist.
Outside of little pockets and enclaves, probably never existed. The somewhat more hip and streetwise cousin to the London portrayed for better or worse by Richard Curtis’ filmography, Saint Etienne’s London is eternally early summer, a busy multicultural paradise that finds joy and wonder within the mundane, the everyday- even if it’s just going to the cafe with friends, or getting ready for a night out. This is due in part to the almost academic research and knowledge of founder members Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs other than the exceptions of Stuart Maconie and Annie Nightingale, they are arguably the country’s experts in pop music.
Their ability to combine genres and styles of music, often within the same song, makes Saint Etienne a truly postmodern band, managing to be completely add odds with, yet simultaneously parallel to, the 1960s beatification and fetishising that was taking place at the time in British pop music (Saint Etienne have always been a curious case- too arty for the pop crowd, too ‘pop’ for the britpop parties). The case in point here was the use of the large video screen behind the band during Home Counties song “Train Drivers In Eyeliner“, which showed a slideshow of photographs of New Towns, overpasses, shopping precincts- all sparkling new in their modernity, bustling with people. These places, nondescript by their very nature but dear to their occupant’s hearts, have shaped Saint Etienne’s sound just as much as the capital.
The trio, expanded to an 8-piece in a live environment, start from the beginning- literally, the first song of the night is their second-ever release, a cover of Sarah Records alumni The Field Mice’s “Let’s Kiss And Make Up” the original jangly 2-chord indiepop replaced by a reggae bassline and backbeat underneath house-like piano, as singer/frontwoman Sarah Cracknell the pinup of many an indie bedsit- adds her unmistakable warm, sultry charm, still the feather-boa-clad siren of 20 years ago. From there, the party begins as the band launch into their multi-faceted slew of hits, including a few songs from their new album Home Counties, a concept album similar in scope to the aforementioned Foxbase Alpha and Turnpike House, with songs designed to conjure up visions of growing up in the leafy suburbs of South-East England, just out of reach of the capital yet still within its gravitational pull (in fact, there’s a wonderful essay on the back cover of the LP which draws the reader/listener to picture the illustrations from Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea- particularly pages 24 and 25, where the family are walking on the high street. It probably explains Saint Etienne’s modus operandi better than I can).
Placed alongside older hits, the new material stands up exactly as expected, perfectly at home- songs like “Magpie Eyes” and the upbeat funk of “Dive” a recent UK Vinyl number 1 single- sit happily as the suburban relatives to the earlier hits of ‘Nothing Can Stop Us Now’ and ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ like aunts and uncles who have settled down a little but still know how to have fun.
The expanded live band benefits the older songs, with the addition of a wider variety of instrumentation such as violin, flute and melodica, as well as live drums which gives the band a more organic quality rarely found in dance music. “Like A Motorway” in particular feels this benefit, becoming somewhat more muscular and propulsive than its studio counterpart, while “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” originally a Neil Young cover, completely repurposed) still retains its swagger but given an extra dimension. The celebration of the everyday continues with “Tonight”, a song purely about getting ready to go out- never has a song about finding the right clothing/makeup combination sounded so vital. Further into the set, the piano-driven “Sylvia” offers a different feel while keeping the pace up, and main set closer “He’s On The Phone” is a euphoric piece of mid-90s Euro dance that hasn’t aged a day since its release.
While it could be argued that Saint Etienne, with their carefree optimism, are something of a summery band, the band seem to have a love of all things festive. Instruments and amplifiers adorned with fairy lights, and Bob Stanley aping Sarah’s feather boa with a length of tinsel. The group are no stranger to festive music as well as atmosphere, playing “I Don’t Intend To Spend Christmas Alone” from Christmas-themed album A Glimpse Of Stocking early in the set, then following up during their encore, starting with a stripped back take (read: Sarah and the live band, no Bob or Pete) of Chris Rea’s should-have-been hit ‘Driving Home For Christmas’, and ending with their very own festive should-have-been hit “I Was Born On Christmas Day“, originally a duet with Tim Burgess of The Charlatans…who were also in town, playing at the Apollo. Never to be deterred, live guitarist/flautist Robin Bennett was roped in to pretend to be Tim, which went down a storm, the same as the entire set- Saint Etienne are seemingly beloved in Manchester, and when Sarah notes that “I’m not playing favourites, but you’re our favourites”, you can believe her.
Words and photography by Liam Moody.