Saint Etienne: The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA 11/03/2012

Not quite full, but definitely buzzing, San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium once again welcomed Saint Etienne with enthusiasm, and Saint Etienne brought their trademark quirks with them. Sarah Cracknell wore another silver sequined dress. Music critics, filmmakers, DJ’s and instrumentalists Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs relegated themselves to the background, buried in their synthesizers. Longtime backup vocalist Debsey (Wykes) brought her understated dark clothing and her cowbell, the only unplugged instrument used all night. The influential British indie-pop band – critical darlings, well into their third decade, yet without a US label – showed their devoted fans how to age gracefully, freshly and have continued a trend of more polished and professional stage shows with each tour. However, with strong themes of lifetime music fandom and how to handle this fandom as we age in their current album, Words and Music By Saint Etienne, the band may have become a victim of its own polite British reserve when taking the album from studio to stage.

Lead singer Sarah Cracknell is a stunner. Her soothing, silky voice is a trademark, and this tour shows Cracknell has worked very hard over the years to improve her live performance skills. A bit flat in the late 90’s and uneven in the 2000’s, the singer has improved to the point that her vocals are indistinguishable from studio recordings – or enhances them. This improvement was most present on higher-pitched back catalogue hits like 1990’s "Spring" and "Nothing Can Stop Us" from their debut album Foxbase Alpha. Although she still can resort to Rex Harrison-style speak singing at the end of phrases, most evident on fan favorite b-side "Burnt Out Car," Cracknell has made it clear that she is not just a pretty face in a pretty dress, she is a seasoned vocalist who has a command of subtlety and nuance.

Clearly, Bob Stanley (who had given previous tours a miss) and Pete Wiggs, both looking better than ever, were happy to let Cracknell take control of the stage, never coming out from behind their up-lit, backlit, eight-foot-tall synthesizer setups. They let their work speak for itself, and thankfully created a stage setup that let Cracknell’s Bond Girl gorgeousness and the music the stars of the show. The crowd, full of Saint Etienne’s most faithful fans, responded accordingly. Many were singing along to every word, even though Words and Music By Saint Etienne was only being officially sold for the first time in the US at the merchandise table during this tour (300 copies are left for fans to buy on, and readers are advised to buy quickly).

While the band bringing themselves and their catalogue would have been more than enough, Saint Etienne lost an opportunity with the presentation of their new material. Saint Etienne is a music fan’s band. It was highly likely that the crowd was full of extremely knowledgable indie music fans and music industry professionals, many closing out their thirties or well into their forties, many who are likely responsible for the band’s fanclub – only releases selling for thousands on eBay –that would have appreciated Saint Etienne taking a risk and taking their fans on a journey with Words and Music By Saint Etienne.

The most notably missing track from the setlist was "Over The Border", a wonderful ode to a lifetime of loving music, the fears of aging and hoping that music will be there for us as much in our future as it was in our past. Combined with the powerfully-performed single "Tonight," which details the excitement of seeing a favorite band live, and the Sony Walkman tribute "I Got Your Music," "Over The Border" and other catalog songs like Fairfax High‘s "Clark County Record Fair" or the spoken-word title track from 2002’s "Finisterre" could have provided a touching, crowd-friendly narrative instead that of just being a run-of-the-mill Saint Etienne show. The threesome, however, are just too polite and reserved to risk being precious and overly sentimental, preferring we feel like we are all in this together from the privacy of our own listening spaces.


Lose that Girl
Who Do You Think You Are
Burnt Out Car
Haunted Jukebox

When I was Seventeen
A Good Thing
Only Love Can Break Your Heart

Like a Motorway
Nothing Can Stop Us

First Encore:
I’ve Got Your Music
He’s on the Phone

Second Encore:

You’re in a Bad Way

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