Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness

Saint Etienne at Webster Hall

If you got it, don't flaunt it',

The first of not many Expert Witness Extras, off-schedule posts I will extract from my employer and my readers by skipping one at a time yet to be determined, is occasioned by the second of just seven U.S. performances by the U.K. disco band Saint Etienne, two more of which will have been and gone by my next posting day. I attended not because I just couldn't stay away but because the show seemed an exceedingly rare shot at determining how Sarah Cracknell and her boys bring off their undemonstrative shtick onstage. Basically, this took 30 seconds--I was captivated more or less instantly by her quiet command. Attired in midcalf boots, slinky spangles that covered her slim-not-skinny frame from knees to clavicle, and a white feather boa that got hugged occasionally but spent most of the set on the floor, Cracknell sang in a slightly louder version of the warm calm that is her recorded specialty. She didn't have moves so much as gestures, dancing with a slight shimmy like a housewife listening to records after the hoovering was done. An attractive blonde who's short of beautiful, she looks her age, which is 45. Usually her right hand grasped a microphone that never left its stand while her left hand waved a little or described modest circles in the air.

I was situated well forward in the balcony stage left with a good view of the packed house, the first two rows filled exclusively with guys, after which the demographic modulated down to something like the third row's 14-6 male. I've seen more women at a Motorhead show, although never, to be sure, as many identifiably gay men--and in keeping with the band's aesthetic, this was an unflamboyant crowd. The setlist ranged over their song-filled two-decade career, mostly titles I recognized easily but a few I didn't; no "Mario's Cafe" or "Heart Failed (In the Back of a Taxi)," unfortunately, but three from the new Words and Music by Saint Etienne. Many mouthed every word. Support team Bob Stanley and Peter Wiggs manned keyboards behind the frontwoman, and although they were always true to their disco-basics principles, the music did get louder, thicker, and more organ-hued as the set progressed. Eventually there were sparingly deployed strobes as well, and Cracknell's gestures got bigger--a few times her two joined hands did a graceful swoop as if she were diving at the town pool. If you think disco and diva go together like coffee and soy milk or horse and carriage, forget it with this gal. She's always modest, always cheerful, always kind. I've never seen anyone quite like her.

A backup singer named Debsey Wykes came on after the opener. I switched seats with my wife so I could see her better, then forgot to look. There were backing videos my sightline rendered all but invisible that were also projected, I discovered when I glanced up, over my head. I noticed them during the second encore. In other words, having walked in wondering how Sarah Cracknell could put her undemonstrative shtick across, I couldn't take my eyes off her. Rob Sheffield walked in right after us having bought his ticket cheap on StubHub that day. So let the remaining tour dates constitute my word to the wise: Paradise, Boston, Saturday 10/27; Lincoln Hall, Chicago, Monday 10/29; Wonder Ballroom, Portland, Wednesday 10/31; Showbox, Seattle, Thursday 11/1; Fillmore, San Francisco, Friday 11/2.

Expert Witness, October 27, 2012