‘Full album’ shows have been in vogue for quite a while now, with the gig-going public showing no signs of a loss of appetite for these events, which are often, (like tonight), tied in with an anniversary of a key album. Artists have differing ways of approaching the performances, with Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark mixing up the track order with their Dazzle Ships / Architecture & Morality shows, The Jesus & Mary Chain playing the additional ‘hits’ section of the gig before Psychocandy, (presumably because they realise that their debut album is actually more popular than the Top 40 successes that followed it), and Brian Wilson simply enlisting an exceptionally good band to help him through Pet Sounds.
Saint Etienne are here in the lovely setting of Butterworth Hall tonight to perform their much-loved 1994 record Tiger Bay in full, and have taken a leaf out of the aforementioned Brian’s book by bringing along a superb group including guitar / bass / drums / keys as well as a string section, woodwind and long time cohort Debsy (AKA Deborah Ann Acheson Wykes) to add her vocals in support of the main trio of Sarah Cracknell, Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley.
The band’s third album, Tiger Bay was an ambitious release, and featured contributions from artists as diverse as Mike Patton, Kate St. John, Shara Nelson and Stephen Duffy. Tonight it is recreated to incorporate the string section and the other assorted cast and as soon as ‘Urban Clearway’ begins, it’s clear that it’s a treatment that is going to work beautifully, with the albums opener becoming more cinematic, even more effective than its recorded counterpart. It’s an instrumental, which means that Cracknell and Debsy appear before the second song (to huge applause) and take on the delicate ‘Former Lover’, an acoustic guitar-led song that could almost be a lost Nick Drake track.
The first bona fide hit of the night then appears in the shape of ‘Hug My Soul’ (the album’s third single), which again sounds incredible with the live strings. ‘Like A Motorway’ is still a subtle classic, and although the audience is loud in the right places, they are pin-drop attentive during the performance with no sign of the dreaded chattering that can blight such shows.
The two singers disappear back into the shadows to allow the rest of the band to navigate their way through the dub reggae of ‘On The Shore’, (the recorded version of which incredibly featured Mike Patton on mandolin), and then resurface for Tiger Bay‘s Side 2, highlights of which include the album’s first single ‘Pale Movie’ and the epic melancholy of ‘Western Wind’, sadly without almost-local boy Stephen Duffy, but it would be somewhat churlish to complain given the wonderful version performed.
There’s an interval after the album has ended, and the band return (initially without the orchestra) for a set of hits and some well-chosen tracks from the corners of their impressive catalogue; an upbeat Sarah Cracknell checking with the audience that they managed to squeeze in ‘a cup of tea and a bun’ during the break in proceedings. Cracknell is on excellent form throughout, none more so than on 1997’s Good Humor highlight ‘Lose That Girl’. The newest song on show tonight is ‘Magpie Eyes’ from 2017’s Home Counties, the band’s most recent record.
‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, the Neil Young cover that started Saint Etienne’s chart career all the way back in 1990, gets the audience on its feet before the orchestra returns for a touching version of the closing track from Cracknell’s 1997 solo debut Lipslide, which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Curtis Mayfield album (the record’s opener, ‘Ready Or Not’ will also be played later).
A brace from second album So Tough are lapped up by the crowd – first ‘Mario’s Cafe’ then a triumphant ‘Who Do You Think You Are’, which allows Cracknell and Debsy to reprise their vocal interplay that featured on the original recording. 2012’s charming Words and Music by Saint Etienne is represented by ‘Tonight’ while the first song that Cracknell sang with Wiggs and Stanley, ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ is a fitting way to end the second set.
There’s still time for one more song, and a celebratory version of 1995 smash ‘He’s On The Phone’ becomes a virtual lap of honour. There are only three Tiger Bay shows following this one – if you are lucky, you might just make one of them.