Saint Etienne at the U Street Music Hall

Long time English alternative dance rockers Saint Etienne perform at the DC's U Street Music Hall.

WASHINGTON, November, 20, 2012 —Saint Etienne has been on the music scene for over 20 years now, so one would assume they’ve outgrown playing in places like the U Street Music Hall. Certainly the size of the crowd – which packed the basement dance hall – suggested that they could’ve filled a much larger venue.  Although it stands to reason, like many of the bands who play U Street, when promoted by the 9:30 Club, they don’t necessarily think of themselves as a band in need of a larger performance space.

Started by Bob Stanley and Peter Wiggs in 1990, Saint Etienne was initially formed in Croydon, England with a fairly high-minded focus. The idea behind Saint Etienne was to perform dance synthpop with a variety of different singers fronting for them on their albums. It would’ve made their live shows interesting, seeing them perform with whatever singer happened to catch their fancy at the time of their tour. However, that direction was taken out of their hands when Sarah Cracknell sang on their third single “Nothing Can Stop Us.” The duo decided to make her the permanent lead singer of Saint Etienne.

Despite how inherently interesting the idea of rotating vocalists might have been, Saint Etienne is obviously better off going in the direction they took when Cracknell joined them. Cracknell gives the band its sense of center, and its sound swirls around her in perfection. Her vocals are soft, nearly hypnotic, a stream of consciousness sensation that’s broken up into a trippy, spoken word hybrid at times. She has ethereal way of singing that keeps the audience almost mesmerized during the band’s entire set.

This couldn’t fit the dance-inspired synthpop mood any better. Saint Etienne’s beat and groove is a subtle blend of Euro club dance music and traditional pop music, the kind that originated around ‘60s British scene. They take the groove and thump of dance music and apply phenomenally catchy pop melodies to them, creating an enticing fusion becomes undeniably addictive the more and more their set progresses. 

Sometimes this approach feels a bit much. But Saint Etienne’s been doing this long enough that they’re able to expertly pull the strings of the audience. Listening to either genre has a tendency to wear out the listener, especially in a live setting, but there’s enough texture and depth to every Saint Etienne song that anyone in the audience can alternate between dancing furiously to listening intently without much effort.

Saint Etienne is nominally recognized as an alternative dance outfit. That’s only because dance music is strictly an underground phenomenon in the US – which is one of the reasons that despite attracting a larger audience than U Street might be able to hold, they fit in perfectly. But in England, and Europe at large, this is still very clearly regarded as pop music. So when they’re in the U.S., a space like U St. seems to be the best way for them to create the right scene for dance club fans.

Wherever they perform, they’ve been able to stay vibrant, even though they’ve never dramatically shifted their approach. They accomplish this by doing subtle things to keep an edge alive in their music. Which is why, despite Saint Etienne performing a brand of music that seems inherently better suited to larger spaces, they’re able to succeed in such an intimate setting like U Street Music Hall.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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