Live Review: Saint Etienne with Volta Bureau at U Street Music Hall, Washington DC – 25th October 2012

By on Monday, 29th October 2012 at 2:00 pm

While Martin was able to catch ’90s dance icons Saint Etienne at both Split and Deer Shed festivals in the lovely North East this past summer, us Americans aren’t as lucky. We were, however, very lucky to have the trio stop in Washington on their current American tour, and it turned out to be quite a night!

The opening band for the evening was homegrown dance band Volta Bureau, starring Outputmessage‘s Bernard Farley on vocals and electronics, U Hall co-owner and legendary DJ Will Eastman on guitars and electronics and Micah Vellian (that’s a stage name, if you were wondering) on bass. Having seen Farley support Ladyhawke last month at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel, I expected and we received soulful lyrics delivered with thudding house and techno beats. They’ve put out two well-received singles, ‘Hope’ and ‘Alley Cat’, and live, they didn’t disappoint, bringing a great, energetic dance vibe to really warm up the crowd before the main event. I was a little surprised to see they didn’t have a live drummer, but to be honest, you don’t miss it, because there are so many things going on onstage with their huge array of synths, sequencers and turntables.

I was pleased as punch to see days before on U Hall’s Twitter that the Saint Etienne gig was close to be selling out. Considering it was a Thursday night show and this is DC, that’s quite a feat indeed. I also wondered what kind of crowd Saint Etienne would attract; I knew the majority of punters would be male (that was correct) but I guess I wasn’t expecting as many people older than I am. I guess you could say the majority of early arrivals were blokes who had been reared on Saint Etienne in the ’90s, and younger folks who have a good sense for dance music arrived later. I was taken aback by the number of people getting totally pissed and being loud and obnoxious, but I suppose this is part and parcel when you’ve got an eager audience, one that Sarah Cracknall was quick to point out and commend early on in their set. And along with that, she stated emphatically that we were “one of the top three best audiences they’d ever had”. It’s great news to my ears that DC’s stoic reputation is cracking!

While the set began with songs from earlier on their career (‘Lose That Girl’ from 1991’s ‘Interlude’, ‘Like a Motorway’ from 1994’s ‘Tiger Bay’), the band’s focus turned quickly to newer songs from this year’s ‘Words and Music by Saint Etienne’ on Heavenly Recordings. The electropop ‘DJ’ and the Goldfrapp-y single ‘Tonight’ would both feel at home on Radio1, no doubt about it. The album proves that the band has seamlessly changed their style just slightly but enough to fit the 21st century.

This is not to say that old favourites were left out. Not at all. The chill vibe of ‘Spring’ and the disco beats of ‘Sylvie’, the words mouthed by a good portion of people near the front, sounded phenomenal. Though Cracknall was self-deprecating about her age, if I look that good and can pull of a feather boa when I’m in my forties, I’d consider myself well off: she dazzled in a form-fitting, short sparkly dress and heeled boots, and her voice, though maybe less strong, was still wonderful. Age also wasn’t a factor to the very excited people to the left of me, who kept shouting how beautiful she was and one bloke even managed to kiss her hand.

When the groove of ‘Nothing Can Stop Us Now’ started up, at first I was a little worried. Was this the end? After the crowd shouted “I’ve never felt so good! I’ve never felt so strong!” back at her, Cracknall and her winsome smile thanked everyone and she, along with the reticent Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, and left the stage. They returned with ‘I Got Your Music’, explained by Cracknall as being about the old style of mixtapes you’d make for your friends and lovers. This was quickly followed by the Eurodance hit ‘He’s on the Phone’, with lots of audience participation during the “someday!” parts. They thanked everyone again, and off the stage they went. Again.

Then the unthinkable happened. Saint Etienne came out for a second encore. Somehow, I knew they weren’t finished after the first encore. They hadn’t played ‘You’re in a Bad Way’ yet. While I realise some people were antsy and wanted to get the hell out of the venue, as a result, you missed a great second encore (and I even managed to finally make it to the front). See, it does pay to wait around a little more after gigs…wait a moment longer, and you might just be rewarded.

Saint Etienne has always been one of those bands that I’d hear being interviewed by Stuart Maconie on Radio2 and never once did I ever think they’d come close enough to DC for me to see them gig. Check another box of that “bands I need to see” list. While I do whinge a lot when I see tours in the UK, I do relish the fact that here in Washington sometimes I have the chance to see bands in tiny, tiny clubs. This night with Saint Etienne was pretty much perfect.

After the cut: Saint Etienne’s set list.

Saint Etienne Set List:
Lose That Girl
Like a Motorway
Who Do You Think You Are (Candlewick Green cover)
Burnt Out Car
Haunted Jukebox
When I was Seventeen
A Good Thing
Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Neil Young cover)
Nothing Can Stop Us Now
I’ve Got Your Music
He’s on the Phone
You’re in a Bad Way

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