Saint Etienne @ O2 Ritz, Manchester, 2 Dec
Saint Etienne tease out fan favourites and album tracks alongside a few surprise cuts and just enough festive numbers to get us in the mood
“Oh, Manchester, I know you're not supposed to have favourites, but…” As an ecstatic crowd roars its approval after a storming Hug My Soul early in the set, it’s all Sarah Cracknell can do to not simply bundle us up and take us home with her. The love Saint Etienne have for one of their most loyal crowds has only grown over the years, but it takes two to tango and this is a relationship built on trust. This is the band’s second local date this year, their biannual Christmas jaunt coming just a few months after a date at the RNCM in support of latest studio album, the excellent Home Counties. As ever, they curate their vast repertoire with guile, teasing out fan favourites alongside album tracks and surprises.
The former comprise the usual stompers (Nothing Can Stop Us, Who Do You Think You Are, a room-shaking Only Love Can Break Your Heart) and for the latter, Lose That Girl from 1998’s Good Humour and a handful of tracks from the new album confirm that two decades are the equivalent of mere minutes in Saint Etienne’s gleaming chronology. That they still manage to craft artful, cerebral pop from some of its simplest components should surprise no one. And as a live act, you suspect they could do what they do with their eyes closed by now. Even so, expanded to a touring eight-piece (stalwart Debsey Wykes still receiving a bigger cheer than either Pete Wiggs or Bob Stanley), they play with energy and panache.
The big tunes just keep coming. Their sharp reworking of The Field Mice’s Let’s Kiss and Make Up is back in the set, so that's worth a cheer. As are Like a Motorway, Sylvie and He’s On the Phone: a celebratory main set-closer that crystallises the Saint Etienne aesthetic in just four roof-raising minutes. And while the Christmas jumper-wearing brigade filling the Manchester streets surely wish it could be Christmas every day, Saint Etienne know all too well the joy and sadness of the festive season; their own brimming yuletide songbook, of course, inclines towards the latter.
So while The Ritz goes dutifully berserk for an encore of I Was Born On Christmas Day, it’s a heartfelt take on Claudine Longet’s I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You that captures the winter chill, Margo Guryan’s lyrics ('It’s a lonely time to live through…') a stirring antidote still to the grasping commerce of the season. 2019, guys – same time, same place?