Another installment of the occasional series in which I dig up my old logs and look back at something I saw the same day x years ago…
September 24, 1994: Saint Etienne at the Manhattan Centre on W. 34th St. For its first American gig, the band was stuck on a disparate Warner Brothers showcase for CMJ that also included American Music Club, Soul Coughing and Grant Lee Buffalo.
The reception at the time was noticeable cool. Typical was Neil Strauss' review in the New York Times: "The English band's singer, Sarah Cracknell, was a forgettable diva, unable to project her voice and almost painful to watch as she danced out of tempo to the band's weak disco beats. Even the synthesizers of Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs sounded too watered down to be effective except on ballads like 'Hobart Paving.' (…) On record, the appeal of St. Etienne is in the way it cuts out all the emotional and lyrical depth from pop songs and keeps only the structure and gloss to create infectious dance Muzak. Live, however, music without substance sounds simply like music without substance."
We've come a long way since then, and fortunately many more critics have now figured out that "substance" is both overvalued and able to take many forms.
Of course unlike Strauss I had a grand time that night; so grand, in fact, that I went back for seconds the very next day, when the band put on a repeat (and even better) appearance at Limelight.
Not too many specific memories from both shows: contrary to what Strauss wrote, Stanley wasn't on stage fiddling with synths; one of the backup vocalists was ex–Dolly Mixture Debsey; Cracknell wore a boa. Instead of individual songs I remember an overall feeling of intense happiness.
Cracknell's role in Saint Etienne has often been undervalued but she was particularly essential live. What threw a lot of critics—still mostly male at that time, and still very much in thrall to rock aesthetics—is that on record she could come across as impossible cool, but on stage she was friendly, accessible, goofy. She didn't fit in either of the basic rock categories for female singers at the time: tough girl or sexpot.
Looking back at Saint Etienne's early years, it's also obvious they were way ahead of the curve in their mix of pop and dance. Listening to Annie, Robyn or some indie band remixed by a hot German duo feels natural now, but when Saint Etienne had their tracks retooled by people as diverse as Autechre, Andrew Weatherall, the Dust Brothers or house honcho Roger Sanchez in the early 90s, the move was misunderstood as much by indie-poppers as by hardcore electronic fans (I vaguely remember Aphex Twin sniffing that he didn't care for Saint Etienne's music to begin with, so it was a pleasure to dismantle it).