Vet bands touring abroad on modest budgets don’t do it for the gold rush, they do it for love and community. And although Saint Etienne’s 2012 North American tour itinerary might’ve ruffled fandom feathers in overlooked locales, we oughtta cherish what we’re given. It’s easy for me to take the high road because Toronto was the first stop on this nine-date mini-tour, but then again, I wasn’t so chuffed when we lost the lottery last time.
Etienne were uncharacteristically quiet for a half-dozen years – not unproductive, mind (babies, remastered catalogue, a fan-only Christmas record, and on) – but May’s Words And Music By Saint Etienne was the tonic their troops needed: an unabashed by-fans-for-fans love letter to music itself; songs about discovering, collecting and growing old with music, decked out in typical club-ready Etienne stripes. Intelligence has always been one of their sexiest traits, and Words And Music is chock-full of that allure. It’s also one of the year’s best records.
Et were still warm enough to place music on Grey’s Anatomy with the last record, but inactivity’s killed career momentum stateside. You could taste the look-before-leaping wariness around tour plans: nine dates in small venues for anticipated crowds of 500, with no live musician accompaniment. Appreciation exists in some quarters: the new LP made #26 UK and scored an 82 on ye olde Metacritic. But it’s pretty scattered on this side of the pond.
This touring Et is as nuclear family as can be: Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell, plus figurative/literal in-law Debsey Wykes, who’s recorded and toured intermittently with the band since the second album, and is married to Sarah’s husband’s brother. (To do my Pete Frame diligence here: Sarah’s Martin is the manager and Debsey’s Paul was an early touring guitarist with the band.)
I had fears the small company set-up mightn’t work. Live singing to pre-recorded tracks, triggers and whatnot always risks little brush fires. And before someone bumped the Opera House PA by 10 db a few songs into the show I thought, Shit, it’s going to be one of those nights. The opener “Like A Motorway” fell on that grenade: Wykes clobbering the cowbell a fraction off the beat and too close to the mike, the volume failing to fill the half-empty room, no unpredictable guitar feedback in sight to force the sound guy to attend to the mix. I’ve seen better starts.
Live Etienne will always brave storms on Cracknell’s charm, and she could probably rescue the most lost of causes with a grin and a shake of her feather boa. This was Etienne’s third Opera House booking in five Toronto appearances, and they must’ve found their old locker in back, because Cracknell was in chummy command from the starting pistol. Radiant in a silver sequined mini-dress and go-go boots, she mixed diva, coquette and indie heroine poses throughout the gig with what you might call casual aplomb. And it’s not a conceit; Saint Etienne are too smart for that. Cracknell is the lovely girl-next-door from B-movies or off-Broadway productions, just a lucky break away from the mainstream, fully possessed of the necessary attributes. She grants cheeky, teasing glimpses of starlet poses without tipping into overt solipsism, as if to let everyone in on the joke – Etienne’s fans are likewise a smart bunch – but to get really meta about it, the shimmies ‘n’ shakes are genuine, affectionate nods to pop’s showbiz roots, while her throaty, jocular between-song patter comes straight from indie rock: the Saint Etienne aesthetic in a nutshell. A 1993 liner note bears my favourite quote about the band: “it’s seldom said Saint Etienne hide their light under a bushel, but I applaud anyone so sharp they run the risk of cutting themselves.” Thinking and dancing go together with this lot.
As performers go, Saint Etienne aren’t musos. Behind their Macs ‘n’ samplers bank, Wiggs and Stanley are more Ralf und Florian than Ferrante & Teicher, and no matter the inventiveness of their arrangements, the canned aspect of this presentation is hard to shake. Wykes is the most capable performer, her singing setting the reference for Cracknell’s odd stray note. Her full duet on band staple “Who Do You Think You Are” remains her signature contribution, all velvet calm and tonal purity.
Sarah was on generally good singing form. Etienne’s songs rely more on notes than lung power, and even though she’s grown a little whispery on recent records, that quality falls away onstage. Any arrangement modifications by Stanley and Wiggs don’t involve re-keying the tunes, and aside from slightly undersinging a couple songs mid-show, she made her jumps with room to spare, sometimes even with her creamy coo of yore. (“Nothing Can Stop Us” soared, for instance.) You’ll never hear wild live reinterpretations with this girl, so all of the above pointed to a pretty clean opening night.
Etienne aired six Words And Music tunes. “Popular” was just too frothy for my tastes, but the others came off well. “When I Was Seventeen” and “Haunted Jukebox” are as close as Etienne get to indie rock, and while I’d really prefer hearing a live band tear a strip off, these versions had a nice, bustling quality about them. “DJ” and “I’ve Got Your Music” easily fit into the dance canon (the latter giving everyone a laugh when Crackers brain-cramped the second verse). The revelation-of-the-night award went to “Tonight.” It didn’t do much for me as an advance single in the spring. But of course it’s the thematic centrepiece of Words And Music, essentially describing gig-going rituals over a chugging, Eddy Grant “Time Warp” beat. In wisely adhering to the longer album version, its extended outro elicited a lot of head-bobs and torso-twists from the crowd. I love it when a song suddenly makes sense. (It almost made up for the absence of the glorious “Answer Song.”)
The remaining 10 songs were cherry-picked oldies, mostly from ‘90s albums (only “A Good Thing” made the cut from the three 2000-2005 LPs). “Spring” and “Nothing Can Stop Us” conjured the loved-up summer of 1991 all over again, and the long break in “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” afforded some ginchy dance moves from Cracknell. A throbbing “Burnt Out Car” was a great surprise inclusion; “Sylvie” and “You’re In A Bad Way” more obvious picks that kept feet shifting. That the perennial “He’s On The Phone” sealed the encore was no surprise at all. Nor was its euphoric afterglow.
On a personal note, while I’d’ve loved another 20 minutes of music, a few of us were able to make up for it with 20 minutes out back after the show, chatting warmly with the foursome about everything from Bob’s impending book to Debsey’s old Birdie records. After 22 years, Saint Etienne are unlikely to surprise either by creative redirection or sudden mainstream success. They are craftspeople of the first order, making brand-recognizable art of consistent, high quality. They’ll play eight more shows over here to eight more groups of committed fans, knowing that while the dressing rooms may never grow larger, the dedicated affection these fans hold for their music matches Etienne’s labours in making it. And that’s what Words And Music is all about, Charlie Brown.