It was a night of firsts for UK group Saint Etienne at Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday (9/5). It was the opening night of their Good Humor 20th anniversary tour, and the first time they'd ever played the 1998 album in full live. The band's most popular album in the U.S, Good Humor found the band decamping to Sweden to work with Cardigans producer Tore Johansson and a group of crack session musicians, and remains unlike any other record in Saint Etienne's catalog, working in elements of exotica, acid jazz and Beach Boys/Phil Spector wall of sound pop. (The album title came from a picture of Brian Wilson in an ice cream man hat featured on the inner sleeve of Sunflower, which they projected during the LP's last song.) The record hasn't dated one bit.
The current live version of Saint Etienne -- featuring longtime unofficial fourth member Debsey Wykes (of Dolly Mixture and Birdie), plus a drummer, keyboardist and two multi-instrumentalist brothers -- were up to the task, having played together since last year's Home Counties tour. Singer Sarah Cracknell, decked out in a feather boa, noted that it was drummer Mike Monaghan who wanted to do this tour and talked them into it. There were some sound issues (backing tracks could've been a little louder, like the bongos on "Sylvie") but overall the Good Humor songs went over with panache and snap.
My favorite songs from the album are all the ones that stray the farthest from the band's dancepop bread and butter -- the flute-and-harpsichord-filled "Goodnight Jack," the wistful "Bad Photographer" and the decidedly Cardigans-y "Been So Long" -- and it was a real treat to get those live (Good Humor is filthy with great basslines), though it was the swooning "Erica America" where it all really came together for me at Bowery.
The second set started with another first -- they opened with instrumental "Hill St Connection," which was one of the tracks on Fairfax High, a bonus album that came with initial copies of Good Humor when it was released by Sub Pop, and they had never played live before. After that the set played like a condensed version of their Home Counties shows, with a parade of hits ("Hug My Soul," "Nothing Can Stop Us," "Like A Motorway," "You're in a Bad Way," "He's on the Phone), a couple of Home Counties songs, and an excellent new song, "Camel Coat."
On the downside: the audience could've been livelier (the Wednesday after a long holiday weekend is tough to get hyped, especially for a crowd whose median age was probably 40), and core member Bob Stanley was not along for this tour. While even he might admit what he brings to Saint Etienne is mostly in the studio, Bob was still missed onstage. (Tonight's show in Brooklyn will probably be livelier.) Check out the setlist and a few fan-taken pics and videos below.
That song "Camel Coat" is one of five new songs on Saint Etienne's tour-only Surrey EP. That and the other tour goodie, the two-disc remix comp Mondo Casino, got stuck at the pressing plant, so you had to fill out a form with pen so they'll mail them to you. With only 1500 made, there was a very long line to the merch table before the show started. (They're also selling Good Humor t-shirts, and have free buttons.) Keep that in mind if you're going to one of the other dates on the tour, like tonight at Brooklyn's Warsaw. Remaining tour dates, and a playlist of songs Saint Etienne are listening to on tour, are here.
SETLIST: Saint Etienne @ Bowery Ballroom 9/5/2018
Lose That Girl
The Bad Photographer
Been So Long
Hill Street Connection
Hug My Soul
Take It All In
Like a Motorway
Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Nothing Can Stop Us
You're in a Bad Way
He's on the Phone