Live music review: Saint Etienne and the London Contemporary Orchestra play Tiger Bay in full at the Barbican

Saint Etienne. Picture: John Stoddart

Saint Etienne. Picture: John Stoddart - Credit: John Stoddart

The devil (or perhaps God herself) is in the detail when it comes to Saint Etienne, so hearing Tiger Bay given a unique live outing with its original orchestral score reinstated feels very on brand.

Hits like Pale Movie and Like a Motorway are no stranger to the band's setlists, but it's a first to hear the arrangements from the studio versions rendered so fully and precisely on stage.

If like me you experience recorded pop music in a relative visceral stupor, then actually witnessing musicians play the score you've heard dozens if not hundreds of times is an ear-opener: no, that isn't (just) the sound of lust or anguish or rush hour, but a soaring violin section whose elbows bend in eerie unison, now a flute, now an oboe, now two voices interweaving with the strings.

Hearing (and seeing) the vibraphone solo that rings out as Hug My Soul finishes - an absolute highlight of the Etienne catalogue in my book - moves me almost to tears, though I can't name the emotion it evokes. It's a good example of the reverence with which the original songs are held during this performance.

But not everything has survived the 25 years since Tiger Bay's release. Pale Movie, seemingly always the bridesmaid of the record (it was chosen as the first single against the band's will, and they often talk about it quite dismissively in interviews), is missing the gurgling synth arpeggios that lift the album version into the big time, and Sarah Cracknell and Debsey don't bother with the vocal melody over the intro.

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It's a shame, because the song is an absolute corker - dark, playful, widescreen, witty - that very much deserves its place in the band's hall of fame.

Sarah's 1997 solo album Lipslide also gets a turn, its two big orchestral ballads sounding better than ever, and hits from 26 years of Etienne history make up the second half of the set.

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Across the show's two hours, she muddles one or two lines, but does a beautiful job overall - particularly on the more stripped back numbers such as The Boy Scouts of America and Marble Lions.

Later, she has the Barbican on its feet during Tonight, Only Love Can Break Your Heart and He's On the Phone, during which the actual Etienne Daho - yes, really - wanders like a vision across the stage for all of 15 seconds, pausing to deliver his iconic spoken word interlude before vanishing again as though he is only changing trains.

Most bands would absolutely rinse a cameo like this, but Saint Etienne and the London Contemporary Orchestra are the undisputed stars of tonight. Everything else is just heavenly detail.


The deluxe Tiger Bay box set is available now at Saint Etienne's website, featuring the original LP expanded across two 45rpm 12-inch discs, and two bonus albums featuring B-sides and alternate takes.

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