Published Sep 12, 2018You can count on one hand the number of times Saint Etienne have visited Toronto in their 28 years together. It's hard to blame the London trio of Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs for such infrequent visits; they've rarely had a stable home on this side of the pond, bouncing around from label to label since the beginning.
It's safe to say that North America has always been a little confused by the group's English style of indie dance-pop. Which is why it came as no surprise that their most popular album over here was the one that sounded like none of their others.
Saint Etienne's 1998 album, Good Humor, marked a significant shift in both their sound and how they approached making albums. They travelled to Malmö, Sweden to work with Tore Johansson, best known as the go-to producer for the Cardigans. Using vintage, analog equipment, a horn section and a team of session players, the trio reinvented themselves by eschewing club rhythms for ornate, '60s throwback pop that, no surprise, garnered many comparisons to the Cardigans.
The kicker was that Good Humor would become (and still is) their most successful album in North America, perhaps in part due to its touristic themes and release on their then-new label, Sub Pop. And so it made complete sense for the band to return to these shores for a nine-date tour to celebrate the album's 20th anniversary.
The last time the band played Toronto, in 2012, they were a skimpy quartet, relying on pre-recorded tracks to back them up. This time around they were filling the stage as a seven-piece, however there was one glaring absence: co-founding member Bob Stanley was nowhere to be seen (the band did not give a reason).
The first set consisted of Good Humor in its entirety, accompanied by projected old black and white photos on the backdrop. Despite needing the extra help to pull these songs off, Stanley's absence wasn't actually a problem. Clad in a feathered boa, singer Cracknell was constantly moving to the music, while the band around her pulled out all the stops to bring these songs to life: flute on "Goodnight Jack," cowbell for "Lose That Girl," triangle for "Erica America" and melodica for "Dutch TV." Although there was a bit of a muddled effect threatening the sound, the adept players fought through it. And then they retreated for a brief intermission.
When they returned for their "hits" set, Cracknell and Wykes were in bedazzled, sparkling tops and sang the "oohs" to fade out "Hill Street Connection." The medium then switched to film, as a vintage rollercoaster ride played through "Hug My Soul," which inspired Cracknell and Wykes to dance around in unison. "I've gotta say, I'm gonna miss that guy," Cracknell joked, as someone was ejected from the building. They played a new track, the fast disco-ish "Camel Coat," from their upcoming Surrey EP, which was supposed to be for sale on the tour along with the Mondo Casino compilation (a pre-order sign up sheet was offered instead).
The crowd was excitable, but didn't really let it all out until the pulsating synths of "Like A Motorway" emerged; with a live drummer, the quarter-century old song sounded massive and energized. "This is a song about going out to see your favourite band," Cracknell announced as they broke into "Tonight," which even had the bartenders bopping. But it was their legendary debut single, a cover of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" that got everyone in the club dancing with its commanding big beats.
And then there was one more encore, led by piano ballad "Hobart Paving," featuring a duet between violin and flute, before they signed off with the bangers, "You're In A Bad Way" and "He's On the Phone."
Although this tour was designed to bring Good Humor to the stage, it's hard not to wish Saint Etienne could always perform in this capacity. With the extra bodies on stage, the songs were given new life and sounded the way they always should have in a live setting. Let's hope this is how they continue to tour in the future — but next time with Stanley in tow.