Friday, October 26th, 2012
Saint Etienne and Snowblink at The Opera House in Toronto
Frank YangSo after a five year layoff, following the almost-simultaneous implosion of all my bands, I’ve begun picking up the guitar again on a regular basis. Mostly just messing around, getting my chops back in order and my calluses back, but certainly with more seriousness than I have in a very long time (though if anyone wants to start a band that sounds like The Afghan Whigs meets Catherine Wheel, get in touch). This is relevant because the last time Saint Etienne were here in 2002, despite the fact that two acts I liked – Dot Allison and Stars – were opening and that I actually did enjoy the one comp I had – Too Young To Die – I gave it a pass because I was certain that a synth/sample-only act – read: no guitars – would be boring to see.
But older and wiser, and having spent the past decade getting decidedly better acquainted with their work as well as their latest effort Words and Music by Saint Etienne, I was quite excited to make up for that missed opportunity on Wednesday night for the first show of their North American tour in support of Words & Music, whether they brought an orchestra or iPod for accompaniment. See, this is me growing as a music fan.
Opening act Snowblink more than supplied any six-string fix I might have needed. The duo of Daniela Gesundheit and Dan Goldman let their respective guitars, a Joe Satriani signature Ibanez (!) and Snowblink signature antler-laden SG for her, a homebrew Telecaster for him, merge to create a gentle, atmospheric rain shower of notes for Gesundheit’s birdlike voice to flitter through in running through selections from their new record, Inner Classics. The two got a bit of help from a third player on percussion and electronics and the audience as a bell section, but most of the magic came from the two Dans. And if you thought that Gesundheit’s vocals would be ill-suited to something as earthy as a cover of Patsy Cline’s “Fall To Pieces”, well they’d have proved you wrong.
Moving the show from the Mod Club, where it was originally intended, to the Opera House may have turned out to be overly optimistic – the audience could have easily fit into the cozier room – but it’s possible that some of their hardcore middle-aged Anglophile demographic had been peeled off by the New Order show happening over at the Sony Centre. But those who were there were excited enough to make up for the elbow room, and when the four-piece Saint Etienne – the core trio plus backing singer – took the stage, Cracknell radiant in a sequined dress, feather boa, and huge smile, they were clearly just as happy to be there.
As expected, the live set up was with producers Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs in back of the stage, safely ensconced behind their keyboards and walls of technology, and Debsey Wykes off to the side with her mic and the only acoustic instruments of the evening – a cowbell and melodica – leaving most of the stage for Cracknell. And while there wasn’t literally a single, giant spotlight on her for the show, there may as well have been because even without much else going on on stage, you couldn’t take your eyes off her; the elegant with a touch of coquette, glamorous yet grounded indie disco queen. From the opening synth beats of “Like A Motorway”, it was a near-perfect balance of hits and new material that focused on the upbeat over the torchy or ballady, turning the room into a time machine that carried the audience back to an era parallel to Britpop that was hip, stylish, and yob-free, to a romanticized London where you were 17 and the discovering music as a portal to another world – not unlike the experiences recounted in Words and Music opener “Over The Border”. It’s quite a feat to create such a vivid sense of nostalgia for a youth that wasn’t actually yours.
While my usual rule is that any electronic band would be better as a live band, it was no hardship to hear the songs done almost exactly as they were on record, given that extra dose of life by Cracknell and Wykes’ vocals and Wiggs and Stanley’s live keyboards overtop the sequences. Not many bands could make this sort of live presentation so enjoyable, but with a frontwoman like Cracknell and songs like theirs, Saint Etienne make it look effortless. I’m sure that there could be a wholly live incarnation of Saint Etienne that would be amazing to witness – “Sylvie” and “You’re In A Bad Way” would actually translate wonderfully – but it would probably require an absurd amount of players. This was more than fine as is.
After an hour long main set, they returned for a two-song encore that saw Cracknell botching the chorus in “I’ve Got Your Music”, but laughing it off and recovering wonderfully, before closing with a stellar version of “He’s On The Phone”. And despite an audience that really didn’t want to leave and demanded a second encore, that was the end. One could think about all the nuggets of perfect pop that we didn’t get to hear – “Hobart Paving”! “Hug My Soul”! – it was probably far better to focus on the goodness that we did get. Everyone seeing the band on their later dates, your in for a treat.
And if anyone wants to start a band that sounds like The Afghan Whigs meets Catherine Wheel meets Saint Etienne, get in touch.
Photos: Saint Etienne, Snowblink @ The Opera House – October 24, 2012
MP3: Saint Etienne – “Downey, CA”
MP3: Snowblink – “Unsurfed Waves”
MP3: Snowblink – “Black & White Mountains”
MP3: Snowblink – “Ambergris”
Video: Saint Etienne – “I’ve Got Your Music”
Video: Saint Etienne – “Tonight”
Video: Saint Etienne – “How We Used To Live”
Video: Saint Etienne – “The Bad Photographer”
Video: Saint Etienne – “Sylvie”
Video: Saint Etienne – “He’s On The Phone”
Video: Saint Etienne – “Hug My Soul”
Video: Saint Etienne – “Like A Motorway”
Video: Saint Etienne – “I Was Born On Christmas Day”
Video: Saint Etienne – “Pale Movie”
Video: Saint Etienne – “Hobart Paving”
Video: Saint Etienne – “Who Do You Think You Are”
Video: Saint Etienne – “You’re In A Bad Way”
Video: Saint Etienne – “Avenue”
Video: Saint Etienne – “Nothing Can Stop Us”
Video: Saint Etienne – “Kiss And Make Up”
Video: Saint Etienne – “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”
Video: Snowblink – “Goodbye Eyes”
Video: Snowblink – “Black & White Mountains”
Video: Snowblink – “The Tired Bees”
Video: Snowblink – “Ambergris”
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