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Saint Etienne
B2 Club 
By Ian Kysel
“It felt like we were on a polar expedition,” Brit-Popper Pete Wiggs joked about his band’s pre-gig-snow-beset trek to Red Square. “It took us more than an hour to walk there from our hotel,” front woman Sarah Cracknell lamented. But Thursday’s blizzard was exactly the reception which the trio had hoped for from Moscow: “We expected [Moscow] to be colder than we’ve been in our lives,” added Bob Stanley. Stanley, Wiggs and Cracknell are Saint Etienne, veterans of British pop, who after stripping off sweaters and long underwear, rather effortlessly heated up Moscow’ B2 on Thursday night. The group brought their feel-good mix of electronic dance music, driving vocals and rock and roll to a packed house of fans. It was the band’s first trip to Moscow, likely scouting the scene in preparation for an album-release tour this summer: “People tell us we’re popular [in Russia],” Wiggs said in an interview on Thursday, “we’re waiting to find out.”

Founded in 1990 by sonophilic-nerds Stanley and Wiggs, the London based Saint Etienne early became a fixture of the mod dance-pop scene. After adding vocalist Sarah Cracknell in 1991, the group released a number of charting single (including the concert features “Only love can break your heart” and “Nothing can stop us”) and a string of albums. Fifteen years into it the group exudes a relaxed charm: “We don’t see each other every day like some bands,” Stanley explained – “I suppose we come from similar backgrounds, we like the same things – the same stupid jokes,” added Cracknell, explaining the group’s congenial dynamic. The band’s market success initially came from Stanley and Wiggs’ insider-knowledge (Stanley began his career in music as a critic) but it is doubtless their easy to digest pop sound that draws in new listeners single after single and keeps cult fans coming back: The 90s saw a number of fans-only releases and the group is once again gaining exposure with a recently released compilation.

Before the start of the show, a B2 DJ adorned the air as Thursday night socialites filed into the venue, on the fourth floor of the club and took up a position on the dance floor or one of the raised VIP sections on either side of it. The stage, set for a full band, featured the line of Korg, Yamaha and Roland keyboards and synthesizers familiar to the indy-pop scene. Another prominent element, the film screen at the back of the stage – sandwiched between two colorful Chesterfield cigarette lights – featured an Alain Delon film (at the band’s request, according to their tour manager). As fans mulled about, ordered drinks from the bar and met up with friends, many were very obviously excited about such a popular group making their Russian debut. As one Anglophone expat said: “I wasn’t going to come out tonight, but I can’t miss out on a great band like this one.”

The great band, if asked, might ironically describe itself as “unstoppable” (Cracknell) or comment that “they’ve done it again” (Wiggs). The continuity of their pop-savvy style, indeed, is exactly what keeps them on the successful edge of fame. Not claiming to have “invented something new,” and though feeling “disconnected from the new-music scene,” Stanley does recommend a few up and coming acts (The Magic Numbers, The Concretes, The Streets) with whom the band has played. While contemporary groups influence the band’s sound, Saint Etienne’s particular brand of backwards-looking-forwards-motion gives their pop an endearing appeal. With the sixties as their decade of choice – “We like the look of the sixties – it looks great to have been our age in the sixties” (Cracknell) – the group shares a love of the “innovative pop of the sixties and seventies” that forms the basis of their style. With their predilection for the image-conscious mainstream of yesteryear, the band mixes their love for black and white cinema of the sixties and the Supremes with their talent at synthesized remixes of those decades. Their ‘unstoppable’ success at reinterpreting, releasing and re-releasing old material (both their own and others’) is part of a self described process of “deconstructing and recreating” that is made to produce their high-gloss-low-budget retro-mod image. Says Stanley, “we’re sexy.” Sexy is exactly the kind of catchword that sticks to a group like Saint Etienne. And where, pray-tell, does the sex stop and the music begin? As Cracknell says with a smile, “When the lights go out.”

A little after midnight, Saint Etienne took the stage, announced in black and white on the screen at their backs. They started their performance with “Action” and continued through “Shower Scene,” before taking a moment to thank the crowd, with Cracknell mustering a timid “spa-sea-bow.” The sartorial Cracknell, sporting a pink sequined top and tight red pants, led the group with the throaty vocals of a fifteen-year veteran of the music industry, her seductive dance moves prompting arms of fans to be thrown into the air with pleasure. The less image savvy (read: more indy) remainder (harmonist, drums, three keyboards, and bass and rhythm guitars) melted into the background while the simple verse-chorus vocals-driven songs and bright spotlights brought Cracknell out into the house. “Side Streets,” the first new song in their set (to be featured in their upcoming album-release), pleased the crowd with its gimmicky chorus and bubblegum-pop sound. The remainder of their set, 15 songs in all, neither challenged nor bored. The songs ranged from the classic “Only love can break your heart,” complete with must-have indy-pop vibraphone, to the new and funky “You can count on me,” a cutesy juvenile dance song with Cracknell counting in English, French and Spanish over a driving bass beat. Their upbeat set continued through “Nothing can stop us now” with the chorus “I’ve never felt so good/I’ve never felt so strong” and “Good thing” (soon to be another single) with the chorus “You know it was a good thing/it was the best thing” sung in front of a sixties-era black and white of rather frantic dancers. These easily delivered lyrics, to a background of ironically retro film clips showed just what kind of pop-innovation Saint Etienne envisioned. The trio seem to prefer reconstruction to deconstruction, sixties pop that would rather be 1955 than 1968.

Concertgoers ranged in style from business casual to would-be hipsters and were mostly young (Wiggs complains that the club scene is “going snotty”). Most present, however, were die-hard fans, who sang along with Cracknell’s vocals, gave flowers, danced and waved their arms in ecstasy. The band liked the venue, with Wiggs commenting that the club offered, “good sound – [and adding that] people look good.” Certainly, then, the show was a success. Saint Etienne offered an up-tempo set of sunshine-filled indy-pop to a crowd of Moscow’s finest. All present were eager for the fun of a throbbing synthesized retro remix that promised unstoppable black and white optimism. Nothing and no one stood in the way of the trio delivering their unique variety of sugar-coated sexy fun to the very warm reception offered by B2’s patrons. Said Wiggs, “we try and give people the holy shiver.” Blizzard or no, for 700 rubles, Saint Etienne did just that.

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