London pop trio Saint Etienne never tasted success in North America the way they have in their homeland. Maybe it's to do with the overt Englishness of their music, but for their first Toronto concert in 10 years, the thin attendance unfortunately made this fact rather obvious.
Still, on the first night of their North American tour in support of their latest album, Words and Music, Pete Wiggs, Bob Stanley and Sarah Cracknell (with Debsey Wykes on backing vocals and vaguely goth dance movements) seemed genuinely excited to be playing the Opera House once again.
Cracknell was every bit the starlet. An ageless beauty at 45, she was decked in a sparkling, sequin sheath and feather boa, radiating elegance even while she sucked back a Steam Whistle. Taking control of the show, the chanteuse stood front and centre, posing, dancing and acting out gestures from the songs while Stanley and Wiggs worked their synths, sequencers and laptops in the dim background.
Perhaps the tour budget was a modest one, but the absence of a live band left the stage looking a bit empty for the four sprawled bodies. On the other hand, the prerecorded tracks suited the band's reputation as a club-friendly act. The remixed versions of songs such as "Sylvie" made the transformation from '60s soft pop to gay disco club anthem not only livelier but more in line with the band's M.O.
While there weren't many of them, the night was all about the fans. The setlist was composed of a nice, career-spanning selection, including six songs from Words and Music. "Like a Motorway," "Nothing Can Stop Us" and "You're in a Bad Way" sounded massive coming from the speakers, giving the show a true club-going feel. Cracknell even tried to drop some Canadian trivia on the audience, stating uncertainly that she believed Neil Young, whose "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" they famously covered, was from the city. (He is.)
When they returned for a two-song encore, Sarah introduced "I've Got Your Music" as Wiggs's song, which led to the only interaction with the producer. She then went on to flub the lyrics, laughing through the chorus but acknowledging her mistake. Closing with the high-energy "He's on the Phone," Saint Etienne left applauding the crowd for kicking off their tour on a high note. The feeling was mutual.