Saturday, October 17, 2009

lovers play the base

Saint Etienne, that thrilling threesome, graced the stage of Shepherd's Bush Empire last Friday. I never managed to catch them live even though they remain one of my all time, favorite groups. Seeing them in the heart of London, the city which has provided the backdrop and inspiration for most of their repertoire, made seeing them even more special.

To my surprise, Annie, who's long delayed album, "Don't Stop", finally sees a release on October 19, occupied the opening slot for Saint Etienne, who played the entirety of their debut album, "Foxbase Alpha", in its original running order.

Annie strutted on stage with a short, seven song set accompanied by nothing more than a drummer, a spooky, cloaked guitarist who also ran all the computer assisted sequences, and lots of reverb on her vocals.

It was a more raw and rocked out sound than I had expected, but still managed to have a slightly bouncy feel due to her sweetly sung vocals. Most of the gloss associated with her recordings was stripped away which provided her songs more grittier edge. Her set featured the following songs:

1. Chewing Gum
2. My Love Is Better
3. I Know Ur Girlfriend Hates Me
4. Take You Home
5. Loco
6. My Heartbeat
7. Songs Remind Me Of You

Between sets, a DJ spun a fabulous, eclectic set of music spanning which featured everything from early Roxy Music to 808 State. Just before Saint Etienne took the stage, he played a healthy does of early 90s, Italo house records which provided the perfect segue into the group's "Foxbase Alpha" set.

One of the things about a band playing one of their albums in its original running order from beginning to end, is that there are usually no surprises. An audience which has a level of expectation doesn't allow for much anticipation through the show. However, Saint Etienne's rabid and dedicated fanbase is happy to have any opportunity to see their beloved band in a live setting.

Saint Etienne kicked things off with album opener, "This Is Radio Etienne", and a montage of film clips projected on two large screens at the back of the stage. In fact, each song in their set was accompanied by a unique set up videos and gave the show the feeling of attending an art installation.

The regal, radio transmission of the opening number was followed by the plinky, piano driven, 90s house classic of "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" which sent the audience into fits of excitement. The euphoria of their debut hit single gave way to the slightly wonky, "Wilson", the crackling vinyl and repeat refrain of "Would you like some sweets, Willie?" while Sarah Carcknell tossing small bags of sweets into the audience.

The dubbed out bliss of "Carnt Sleep" slid fluidly into "Girl VII", which, at one point, required Sarah to read from piece of paper for the spoken bit, which made for a very charming moment which added to the art installation feel of the evening.

After the driving rhythm of "She's The One", Sarah and backing vocalist, Debsy, retreated to the table at the side of the stage for a short rest while Pete Stanley and Bob Wiggs behind a bank of keyboards on risers, dressed in cream colored blazers with matching trousers and black t-shirts, floated through the instrumental, ambient, Balearic beats of "Stoned To Say The Least".

The joyous, swinging 60s vibe of "Nothing Can Stop Us", received an ecstatic response from the crowd. And it was clear that Sarah was beginning to have few slight problems with her voice. She let it be known that she was suffering from a throat infection and apologizes if she wasn't in top form. Even with a touch of flu, she shimmied across the stage and waved her arms in the air without ever appearing sluggish. She was a real trooper throughout.

The final four songs from the "Foxbase Alpha" cycle, the filmic "Etienne Gonna Die" (which features dialogue from David Mamet's 1987, motion picture, directorial debut, "House Of Games"), the pastoral strains of "London Belongs To Me", the extended trippiness of "Like The Swallow", and the dreamy "Dilworth's Theme", comes across like a live movie soundtrack rather than the closing songs of a landmark, pop album.

After a brief pause for refreshment, the mighty Saint Etienne returned to stage and performed a selection of their biggest hits, but not before we were treated to "John & Marsha", Stan Freberg's novelty single released on Capitol Records in 1951, being played over the sound system.

After the hilarity of "John & Marsha", which left many in the audience scratching their heads, Sarah return to the stage without Bob and Pete. She performed "Hobart Paving" by special request with only a Debsy on backing vocals and Gerard, one of the group's staff dressed in a white lab coat, on piano. Sarah was sure she would remember all the words, but she did. However, Gerard flubbed his parts toward the end of the performance, Sarah giggled and the audience roared with laughter and applause.

Bob and Pete returned to the stage in more comfortable attire and launched into a set of dance favorites from across their nearly 20 year career including "Who Do You Think You Are?", "Method Of Modern Love", "Pale Movie", "Like A Motorway" and "Sylvie".

After a high energy romp through "He's On The Phone" as an encore, Sarah thanked the packed house for sticking with her through the show and apologized for her throat infection. She blew kisses to the audience and ended with handing her white, feather boa to an enthusiastic fans at the foot of the stage.

Saint Etienne's set list for the evening was as follows:

Foxbase Alpha

1. This Is Radio Etienne
2. Only Love Can Break Your Heart
3. Wilson
4. Carnt Sleep
5. Girl VII
6. She's The One
7. Stoned To Say The Least
8. Nothing Can Stop Us
9. Etienne Gonna Die
10. London Belongs To Me
11. Like The Swallow
12. Dilworth's Theme

Greatest Hits

13. Hobart Paving
14. Who Do You Think You Are?
15. Method Of Modern Love
16. Pale Movie
17. Like A Motorway
18. Sylvie


19. He's On The Phone


  1. Great review! It's so like them to throw in a Freberg moment. And I love that you referenced one of my favorite SE obscurities in the post title.

  2. Wow! Saint Etienne on stage!
    I'd like to see them one day here in France!