Somnambule - Writing About Music

Saint Etienne

Barbican, 27 October 2005

Tonight’s a two part experience, with a film as the first half followed by a short concert in the second. I’m a Saint Etienne novice, inducted into the order by a friend who’s generously plied me with MP3s to bring me up to speed. I’d heard the odd song in the past, not paid much attention and filed them under ‘girlie pop with a little contemporary dance thrown in’. Such an observation was both fairly accurate and fairly wide of the mark. Turns out they’re a London band and that certainly piques my interest. Long-term denizen of this chaotic capital that I am, it’s the little cultural fragments that secrete themselves beneath the skin that contribute to a mosaic-like affection: places such as the tiny Postman’s Park near St Pauls cathedral, the hilltop edifice of Alexandra Palace, Michael Moorcock’s novel, Mother London, and Patrick Keillor’s films London and Robinson In Space.

It’s a sellout, the audience predominantly reflecting the group’s age and post-clubbing background. The band take the stage in darkness to accompany their film, What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day. The film’s subject is the lower Lea Valley, a largely derelict area that is rapidly being obliterated to make way for London’s 2012 Olympic facilities. The film’s narrative hangs, by a slender thread, on the travels of a boy on a newspaper-round. The atmosphere is of loss, abandonment and neglect and it’s virtually impossible to recognise any familiar landmarks because the direction focuses upon scenes with very little contextualisation. The accompanying voiceovers are wryly affectionate, but tinged with puzzlement, as if wondering why a film would be made about such an odd subject. The resulting experience sits uncomfortably between abstraction and nostalgia. The lower Lea Valley was a place of industry and innovation, but as someone comments, that was long ago and there’s almost nothing left of that period. What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day is like dreaming of ghosts in broad daylight.

After a short interval, Saint Etienne return to the stage to perform songs from their most recent album, Tales From Turnpike House. Lead singer, Sarah Cracknell endearingly admits to nerves and well she might: the Barbican is rather too formal to be a suitable pop music venue – The Forum would have been a much better venue, at least for the gig itself. For most of the 40 minutes of their performance, the sound booms out uncomfortably and the band appear self conscious. However, for the three song encore a fair part of the audience finally screw up the courage to get up and dance. Things improve no end as a result. On the screen behind the group a film of dancers in a mid-70s dance venue plays in slow motion – the concentration on their faces and their athletic movements prove to be incredibly moving. With this, the band’s music and sense of nostalgia finally convey a strength of emotion that was hinted at, but was largely unachieved until this moment. It’s a magical few minutes that makes sense of the whole evening.

Colin Buttimer
Published by me