It’s approximately 9pm on a very cold December night. It’s freezing outside and also decidedly chilly inside the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. The audience are shuffling around with a casual indifference. We’ve all just been bored to tears by the night’s support act, The Clientele, who appear to have played the same bland dreampop/indie tune ten or eleven times. Judging by the lack of atmosphere on stage and the rambling tunes punctuated by the occasional monosyllabic “thanks…”, the performers seemed just as as bored by their own music. [In retrospect, while they were devastatingly dull, it was easy to see why they were chosen. They weren’t the worst support act ever – that honour will forever be owned by Patrik Fitzgerald – they were just very boring.]
Saint Etienne are about to take the stage, though, so surely things are about to get much better. The minutes pass and a selection of kitschy tunes – almost certainly curated by Saint Et’s own pop historian Bob Stanley – fills time. As it happens, this is all more entertaining than The Clientele. and worthy of an easily accessible Spotify playlist. Saint Etienne founders, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, along with various other musicians, eventually saunter on stage at a rather casual 9:25, followed by vocalist Sarah Cracknell.
Beginning the set, fan favourite ‘Kiss and Make Up’ returns to the live show and should create a far more exciting opener. However, the sound mix is very quiet and Sarah Cracknell’s microphone seems to be even quieter. Half of the vocals are lost and the music comes across as a little flat. Pockets of the audience are keen, but it’s hardly a rousing start. By the downstairs bar, a man with a loud voice talks all the way through this track – spoiling it entirely. (He will talk incessantly through the next five songs, before leaving the venue quickly, suggesting he didn’t actually pay for his ticket.)
Other popular hits ‘Hug My Soul’, ‘Like A Motorway’ and ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ should rouse the audience, but are met with a casual indifference by many. It’s impressive that it takes an eight piece band to faithfully recreate the multi-layered and luscious pop, but the hired hands approach everything with precision and it’s only Stanley and Wiggs, manipulating keyboards and laptops somewhere near the back of the stage, who appear to be having any kind of fun. In fact, it doesn’t seem to matter what the band plays during the first half of the evening – be it a familiar tune from the past, or something from 2017’s excellent ‘Home Counties’ – nothing really rises beyond a competent, almost workmanlike stance.
Finally, a whole ten songs into a slow evening, things show signs of improvement. Sarah introduces a special guest and a man who looks a bit like Dinosaur Jr. head honcho J. Mascis walks onto the stage. He’s another studio hand; it’s multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee, part producer of ‘Home Counties’. His speedy conga work gives an added dimension to a recent single, the excellent ‘Dive’. Thankfully, by now. almost every nuance of this huge ensemble on the stage comes across clearly and well…if still rather quiet. A trip back to the 90s with a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ finally finds the audience jumping – though there’s a feeling that for the balding, forty something and largely male crowd this is purely about nostalgia and not much else – before ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’, ‘Sylvie’ and ‘He’s On The Phone’ are met with a modest approval. With a set presenting so many hits and favourites, it’s a mystery why the audience seem unmoved for the most part. In thoery, at least, the last quarter of the main set should have raised the roof.
With very little competition, the first encore is the evening’s highlight. The band returns to the stage, minus Stanley and Wiggs, and presents a kitschy, low key cover of Chris Rea’s ‘Driving Home For Christmas’ which manages to be enjoyable, despite Cracknell’s untrained voice being somewhat…wobbly. ‘Train Drivers In Eyeliner’ (from ‘Home Counties’) provides a thoroughly enjoyable and nostalgic three minutes, with the retro pop sounds complimented with an excellent slide show of 1960s photographs of Croydon, Basildon and more, before everything finishes with ‘I Was Born on Christmas Day’, on this occasion played with the charismatically cartoonish and deep voiced Matt Berry. Berry isn’t trying to upstage the band too much (surprisingly), but he has thrown Sarah’s best feather boa into the audience…
Sarah leaves the stage, followed by the rest of the band. The house lights stay dimmed and occasionally change colour. There’s a distinct feeling in the audience that we’re getting one more song. Nothing happens. On stage left, a man pokes his head around the corner and raises his hand. Nothing happens. Most of the audience stays put. After another minute – which at this point seems to feel like forever – the man reappears and does the same again. Nothing happens. After another minute, the white house lights rise and the audience files out, deflated.
Saint Etienne have been studio marvels in the past. Their recorded output is a treasure trove of pop and judging by their 2017 release, the excellent ‘Home Counties’ – arguably one of their best records so far – they’ll continue to deliver great, quirky material. On the basis of this evening’s lacklustre performance, though, live sets are really not their strength. This night with Bob, Pete and Sarah has been…underwhelming, to say the very least.