Hey, NYC. This is your little brother DC talking. I’m not one to talk trash much (particularly when it comes to concerts), but I’m going to talk a little trash to you. You see, we just hosted a once-in-a-decade event at a cool little joint we have here called U Street Music Hall. The show was none other than Saint Etienne, the amazing disco/house band from London.
We sold that out and it was all kinds of amazing. (At least I think we sold it out, Mr. Eastman?) I see they are playing at Webster Hall tonight and somehow there are still tickets available. Now I know you get bands like Pulp and New Order up there and you know how to treat them right, right? Then, don’t miss out on Saint Etienne!
Let me tell you what you would be missing.
Sarah Cracknell (vocals), Bob Stanley (synths) and Pete Wiggs (more synths) are simply the smartest, lushest Eurodance band ever to hit the stage. Let me not fail to mention their capable fourth touring member — Debsey Wykes, formerly of UK post-punk band the Dolly Mixture, on backup vocals and cowbell! Now, Saint Etienne are indeed English, so they are a bit proper — and Cracknell, bless her, seemed earnestly embarrassed by the adulation she and her bandmates received at U Hall, as we fondly call it. But they earned every moment of frenzied screaming throughout their 17-song set.
Saint Etienne paid mighty tribute to their 1998 album, Good Humor, opening with “Lose That Girl,” which set the tone perfectly. Wykes set the beat with her cowbell and later filled in backing vocals that meshed so well with Cracknell you would think they were doing this their entire lives. Cracknell herself was a vision — an honestly beautiful mature woman who shined in an appropriately shimmering disco dress and modest black boots. Her voice was amazing, soaring effortlessly over Stanley and Wiggs’ delightful electronic magic.
The high moment in our DC show came a little after the halfway mark when they played “Sylvie,” which inspired the audience to sing along to the refrain “Over and over and over and over again” — to the delight of the band. Cracknell was so pleasantly stunned that she turned the vocal duties for that line over to the audience, which obliged her in singing along appropriately. Wykes jumped in and provided backup vocals primarily for a group of 20 men who were singing the chorus right in front of the stage.
It was altogether improbable and the result was nothing less than fantastic.
Saint Etienne, of course, have a new album, Words and Music by Saint Etienne, which inspired this tour. Alone, it’s an amazing disco album that owes a lot of love to synthmasters of old like Giorgio Moroder. Live, it’s a disco inferno, setting blaze to an audience ready to dance. The danciest song, “Popular,” was the first played from the album. It’s a warm and inviting song with a playful chorus referencing famous glam and house dance songs.
Other selections from Words and Music included the haunting “Haunted Jukebox,” written by Wykes; “Tonight,” a tribute to going out on the town; “I’ve Got Your Music,” an ode to the joy of listening to your own personal mix on your Walkman… um, iPod; and others. Taken together, these songs are a joyful dance down memory lane of how you come to love and embrace music. (A kind of “secret origin,” if you will, to borrow a phrase from organizer Mike of the Washington DC Britpop Meetup Group.)
Lest you think Saint Etienne forgot where they came from, they wowed the audience with their housey cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” from Foxbase Alpha. And they closed the main set with a show-stopping rendition of “Nothing Can Stop Us,” the groovy and triumphant anthem that first introduced the breathy sweetness of Cracknell’s voice to the uneducated ears of the masses. A second encore of “You’re In A Bad Way” from So Tough only stole the remaining little bits of the hearts of every single person in attendance.
Part of the strength of Saint Etienne is that they sound so timeless. They have such an Italo feel that make them sound like they should be the soundtrack to bright sun-drenched movies of the ’60s. But wait, maybe they recall the glimmering lights of nights in Studio 54 of the ’70s? Perhaps, I’m going to peg them to the archly fashionable sensibilities of the new romantics of the ’80s?
Speaking of which, NYC, Saint Etienne are second cousins to an extremely popular rash of radio friendly glam disco acts like Goldfrapp and La Roux. I see their Brooklyn-based first cousins, The Golden Filter, are opening at Webster Hall tonight. Even more reason to go! The Golden Filter were one of the top three shows I’ve seen here at my beloved local Liberation Dance Party — and I’m sure they are even more amazing in their adopted hometown.
For openers, I was lucky enough to have the esteemed Volta Bureau, kind of a supergroup of DC house DJs and performers, who brought a funky energy to the easy confidence of their laidback brand of dance. Yeah, they have a little bit of disco in them, too, and an effortless timelessness that makes their music sound like it could have been recorded at any place in the past 35 years while still remaining fresh. They truly set the stage for Saint Etienne with selections like “Alley Cat.” If members Will Eastman, Outputmessage and Micah Vellian keep on going, they doubtless will get even better.
So, NYC, this was my utterly breathtaking Thursday night. Can you make Friday night even better for Saint Etienne or will we retain the honor of being one of “the top three audiences” this amazing band has ever experienced? (Cracknell’s words, not mine!)
Boston, I’m not even looking at you. Only NYC can break my heart.
I’m not given to including set lists normally, but this is a special occasion:
Lose That Girl
Like A Motorway
Who Do You Think You Are
Burnt Out Car
When I Was Seventeen
Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Nothing Can Stop Us
I’ve Got Your Music
He’s On the Phone
You’re In A Bad Way