Anyone born within a police siren of Croydon will know that nothing screams Christmas quite like Fairfield halls. Not literally of course, that would be terrifying to passing traffic, but decades of pantomime Buttonses haunt the plush carpeted halls, and the manners of the volunteer staff are, to quote Kylie, a step back in time.
Saint Etienne may have let families, writing books (Bob Stanley’s encyclopaedic history of pop, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah), solo albums and London soundtracks get in the way of following up 2012’s immaculate Words and Music album, but nothing gets between them and Christmas. To some people Saint Etienne are only a flute solo away from a summer meadow snooze-fest, and their Christmas gig might be one schmaltzy step too far, whereas to others they are the comedown muscle that saw them through, and the love of pop shared. And besides, their unabashed love of yuletide is irrepressible.
They come out of the blocks blazing, with the soaring Who Do You Think You Are? seeing a grinning Sarah Cracknell and backing singer Debsey Wykes knitting gloriously lilting harmonies, before a storming He’s On The Phone pulling everyone from their seats and to the front. It’s so effective that there’s concern they may have shown their hand too early. Taking on Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas makes complete sense, but without the one-man Dire Straits himself it is slight, and won’t be missed for another year.
Their time at Xenomania is represented by an uplifting Stars Above Us, and sees Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley standing behind keyboards playing the glory riffs. Shock of the night is the effectiveness of their love letter to the excitement of attending gigs. Tonight blends Girls Aloud vocal harmonies and crisp staccato synths like pop music never lost its heart to EDM. ‘The sound is breaking like a wave,’ a jabbing declaration of intent.
It’s unclear how such a studio based band started playing live, but these days they’ve got it nailed. With enough ‘la la las’ to keep Chris Martin awake at night, they keep pulling out the tunes. Only Love Can Break Your Heart once again defines a good cover version, while sounding as fresh as ever, while the swoopingly perfect Avenue remains a 90’s lullaby force-fed on 60’s pop.
Every song is joyfully received, none more than the glamorous, Madonna’s Vogue-aping (via Plumstead Common) middle 8 rap of Girl V11, which Sarah reads from a sheet. It’s little surprise, as she jokes with the front row about struggling to even recall songs she’s just announced. It reads as beautifully random as ever, undercut by dirty Chic guitar licks: ‘June 4th, 1989. Primrose Hill, Staten Island, Chalk Farm… Sao Paolo, Boston Manor, Costa Rica’. It’s an evocative list of dream places and commuter pockets that brings a flush to every soul in the room.
Nothing Can Stop Us is a call to arms, with its mission statement of ‘I’ve never felt so good. I’ve never felt so strong,’ never sounding more triumphant. Hug My Soul suffers from poor sound, but the trumpet is a perfect addition to I Was Born on Christmas Day, even if Tim Burgess is regrettably absent.
For the encore Trev and Simon arrive like it’s Saturday morning from the 90s. They stick to what they’re good at, which is gate-crashing other people’s performances. It’s hard not to smile, particularly with Simon clutching Stanley’s Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.
At the after show party in the foyer with DJ Pete Paphides playing, its like a smile bomb has gone off. The band are such fans of music, that the line between fandom and band has never been so blurry. They really should open sets with their spoken word raison d’être Over the Border,(from Words and Music) but it’s a minor quibble. It’s the best night at Fairfield Halls since Jack and the Beanstalk in 1979.