Another day, another city, another deconsecrated church, and some would say another country. After seeing the sublime Trio Mediaeval play with Arve Henriksen in St George’s Hall, Bristol it was off to Cardiff for Saint Etienne, who re-sanctified the old Plasnewydd Presbyterian church in the Roath area to the North East of the city centre, now known as The Gate. Saint Etienne are one of my holy trinity of bands, along with Broadcast and Stereolab, and are, alas, the only one of the three I’m now likely to see again. The latest LP, Words and Music, is partly about the almost sacred role that pop music can play in people’s lives (it’s first track talks, only semi-mockingly, of a pilgrimage to see the Wiltshire home of Peter Gabriel ‘from the band Genesis’). So a church building was an appropriate setting for a celebration of its glories, and of the intimate connection it makes with its congregation. Intimate was certainly the word here, with the sell out show packing them in to the serried ranks of banked pews, with those who felt like testifying spilling out onto the central dance floor. The stage was very low, and the whole set-up had the slightly bizarre ambience of a church hall disco. This was particularly the case during the fairly long wait for everything to get going (the time on the ticket was wrong, so everyone turned up early). The empty dance floor seemed a testament to the uninspiring nature of the music playing through the speaker stacks, and brought to mind the awkward period a the start of a party or wedding disco when everybody is too reserved or insufficiently drunk to be a pioneer on the dancefloor. The cover of Words and Music is a marvellous A-Z style map in which roads, parks and amenities all have the titles of songs. For example, to pick out a few favourites, there is Gibsom Street (Laura Nyro), Montague Terrace (shaded in blue, of course – Scott Walker), Doubleback Alley (the Rutles’/Neil Innes’ take on Penny Lane), Hotel Particulier (where Serge Gainsbourg takes Melody Nelson), Clarksville Station (to which you can catch the last train, like The Monkees), and Jollity Farm (where ‘everything sings out to us as we go through the gate’, according to The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band). Apparently there’s an app available which allows you to find out where all the place-names derive from, or give yourself a little quiz. The cover reflects the record’s view of music as providing a roadmap to guide you through life, a vital and faithful companion which can let you know where you are, remind you of where you’ve been, and point you towards new routes and regions to explore. A map of Cardiff was certainly essential to guide me to the unassuming residential Keppoch Street in Roath, some mile or so out of the city centre, in which The Gate Arts and Community Centre was incongruously located.
Dusty gestures - Sarah CracknellSaint Etienne’s singer and live frontperson Sarah Cracknell took to the stage in a spangly top which reflected the lights and gave off the odd bit of dazzle. It was a touch of glam which was in fitting with the sense of joy in the unabashed melodicism of classic pop which the group have always displayed. They always perched rather awkwardly in the ‘indie’ camp to which they have generally been assigned, largely eschewing guitars (save for a bit of folky acoustic on recent records) in favour of keyboards and ‘get up on the dancefloor’ beats. If it has its roots in the 60s and 70s, then this is music which has more affinity with Dusty and Scott than with founding indie gods along the Velvet Underground and Stooges, Byrds and Doors axes. Indeed, part of the new album sound not unlike the Kylie of Light Years and Fever (no bad thing), particularly when Sarah sings in her most breathily light voice on Last Days of Disco. She had her trademark feather boa to hand, which was waved above her head at appropriately dreamy or ecstatic interludes. She was joined at the front of the stage by a backing and co-vocalist, who also joined in enthusiastically with the dancing. The boys (Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs) stayed in the shadows at the back, twiddling with their electronic gadgetry and keeping the machinery of pop functioning at full groove. They coolly produced all the music, except what was played by the guitarist, remaining seated in concentration throughout. They looked a little awkward, as if they still couldn’t quite believe they were here, on stage, with a hit-making pop band. A smile of quietly self-absorbed pleasure occasionally crossed their faces as they realised once more that this wasn’t all a dream. It’s always been thus.
The Boys in the Band - keeping to the shadowsFilms were projected onto a screen behind them, a different one for each song. This was no surprise, given the band’s use of samples from London-based films, popular and obscure (I’ve yet to figure all of them out), on the So Tough album, and their role as producers of several films (one of which, What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?, should see the light of day on dvd in the near future). Some of these projections were highly amusing. Clean cut boys and girls who looked like extras from an episode of The Monkees leapt into the air in slow motion, all bright teeth and white hipsters, multi-coloured balloons rising into blue Californian skies behind them – a bubblegum dream of 60s pop. For I’ve Got Your Music, a new song which celebrates both portable music systems and the experience of having a song circling around in your mind as you head out into the world, we had early 80s ads for Walkman cassette players, and Cliff squatting to rollerskate into the camera shot for Wired For Sound, getting down with the kids. For Popular, a hymn to pop transience, disposable chart filler and one hit wonders, which also marks the wistfulness felt by those whose brief moment has receded, there was a countdown from an old 70s Top of the Pops, in which the occasional Bowie was vastly outweighed by a welter of Showaddywaddys, Smokies and Peters and Lees. A secondary chart was filled with patently made-up artists, some previously and some freshly invented, some funny and some just sinister or creepy. There were a few genuine bands to spot amongst them, Peel obscurities such as Crispy Ambulance, who were never likely to trouble any chart. Another film provided an alternative and very appreciative audience from a Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club style show; boozy, brown-suited men and stout, Mrs Mills women, roaring with laughter and applauding with hearty abandon. They were intercut with a loop of a hirsute, cheekily grinning drummer who tentatively tapped away at his kit, apparently the object of all the hilarity.
They played a few songs from the new album; the aforementioned I’ve Got Your Music and Popular and the new single Tonight. In the context of the concert, this was a very self-reflexive song about the anticipation of going to see your favourite band, with its speculative line ‘maybe they’ll open with an album track, or a top five hit, no turning back’ (it was somewhere in between). DJ was an uptempo dance number which Sarah posited as a potential follow up single. The positive response it received prompted her to conclude ‘that’s a done deal, then’. Participatory audience feedback in direct and immediate action. Most of the new material played her focussed on the upbeat, danceable side of the album. When I Was 17 represented the elegiac element which has become a feature of all of Saint Etienne’s latterday albums (and was present to an extent from the beginning). This is perhaps best illustrated by the melancholic song Teenage Winter which concludes their previous record Tales From Turnpike House. It’s a natural condition of maturing and becoming more reflective, wondering what it’s all about. Sarah forgot a verse and berated herself for being ‘crap’, but it didn’t matter. It added a further element of humanity and intimacy to a concert which was never about slick showmanship anyway. We were lucky to have her here at all, as it turned out. Subsequent shows were cancelled as the sore throat with which she was battling (staving it off with the odd swig of G&T) erupted into full-blown laryngitis. Her voice has never had a particularly wide range, but it is the distinctive and characterful heart of the Saint Etienne sound. A cool and self-assured presence, sensual but always with an underlying element of wry amusement. She sounded fine tonight despite her ailments, which I wouldn’t have been aware of had I not subsequently read about them.
She wants to go home - goodnightThe rest of the evening was given over to the hits and album tracks promised by Tonight, ranging over the years (good grief, the decades!) from Only Love Can Break Your Heart onwards. For their housed-up version of Neil Young’s country plaint, a local boyo (in his 30s at least) felt compelled to get up on stage and revive the baggy spirit of the song’s era, dancing in an intensely self-absorbed, crouching trance. He never impinged on Sarah’s space, and she looked on with good humour. He received a loud cheer when he was eventually escorted off, and Sarah subsequently voiced what was no doubt on most people’s minds: ‘I didn’t know Bez was here tonight’. Another chap and his missus came back shortly afterwards, having exited to but more beer and sneak in a smoke. He asked his mates if they’d played Only Love Can Break Your Heart and, having been told he’d missed it, was clearly greatly dismayed. There seems to be an Aesop-like Fable here somewhere. The Man Who Went For More Beer and Missed His Favourite Song. You’re In A Bad Way was greeted with huge enthusiasm, and became an audience singalong, with the line ‘get your kicks watching Bruce on the old Generation Game’ bellowed out in unison. Nothing Can Stop Us, Sylvie and Who Do You Think You Are were other old favourites given an airing. There were also the album or b-side tracks, ones for the fans: Mario’s Café, on of their most archetypal London songs, with its ‘Kentish Town Tuesday’ café rendezvous; Good Thing, a danceable lament for love foolishly let go from the Tales From Turnpike House LP; Burnt Out Car, with its naggingly catchy synth hook getting those arms in the air; and Spring, from way back in their Foxbase Alpha days, a song offering hope in the face of romantic disappointment that was obviously appropriate for the season. The evening ended with an encore, Sarah rather unnecessarily apologising for the slight delay, explaining that one of the boys had to nip to the loo (‘it’s alright, it was only a number one’). They finished, appropriately enough, with He’s On The Phone, their biggest hit, with its lines ‘he’s on the phone, and she wants to go home,
shoes in hand, don't make a sound, it's time to go’. It drew everyone who was even remotely inclined to dance onto the floor or up from their pews, and was an uplifting send off from a hugely enjoyable show. I’m now looking forward to Bob’s forthcoming book on pop music, Do You Believe in Magic which has so obviously informed the celebratory and reflective focus on pop and its personal meaning which permeate Words and Music’s every song.