“Oh my!” beams Sarah Cracknell. “Just look at you at all. You look lovely! And this – wow.” She motions around the hall in wonder. While locals have had a few years to settle into Manchester’s most beautiful live venue, acts pitching up here for the first time do tend to be taken aback. And quite right, too: this former Wesleyan chapel – ostensibly restored but still displaying enough original features to lend it an appealingly un-scrubbed character – is rapidly becoming the twelfth man for any act requiring an extra push with an audience slow to warm up. Not that Saint Etienne need any such help tonight as they return to town for their bi-yearly (ish) Christmas jaunt and the ready-to-party faithful brave the storms to re-join their club.
But first, Girl Friend: the Manchester four piece a canny last minute addition to the bill after being approached on Twitter by the headliners’ Bob Stanley. A regular sight around town for the past couple of years, they saunter in as cool as you like and Manchester just swoons. When they’re huge, you’ll wonder how you could have even doubted it, but for now their savvy re-assembling of the superior elements of 80s avant-pop is an unblinking face-off with both art and commerce. Singer Amory Neish-Melling delivers charisma without the usual preening narcissism and unwittingly reveals what lesser frontmen know to be the unspeakable truth: if you’re working at it, then you ain’t actually got it.
With the band’s electro aesthetic aligned with both the properly, classically synthetic (early Human League, The Associates) and the current provocateurs (the late night, low light heartache of Outfit’s recent Slowness), Girl Friend are a deep and sensual thrill. And their singer is in a different league: blessed with a clean high tenor, his delivery is effortless and free, and you want to hug him for being so stupidly cool. Or kill him. One or the other. His sister Eleanor plays keys and contributes silky harmonies and when they power up the likes of ‘Monte Carlo’ or the sultry ‘Poison’, Girl Friend soar. A little Sherlocking reveals a backstory as intriguing as it is messy but, as with their so many of their apparent influences, the past can go hang. Girl Friend feel like the future now and 2016 has its hands all over them. Hey, baby – we’re the new new romantics.
Saint Etienne are here in part to show off their newly re-issued A Glimpse of Stocking, a properly festive collection of seasonal originals and covers. As with their deeper body of work, it knows only too well how to pitch itself, recognising the season for the disorienting mix of misery and gaiety that it surely is. Nobody likes a grinch but fake bonhomie is an even bigger crime and so Saint Etienne grab their Christmas cake and chomp away, shifting from the chill gloom of ‘I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You’ to the euphoria of the closing ‘I Was Born on Christmas Day’ with practiced ease.
But their greatest gift this season is to actually give over most of this storming set to a bracing selection of bona fide hits and fan favourites. So while they start big – ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ with just Cracknell, long term honorary member Debsy Wykes and a thumping backing track – when the band proper enters (a full six piece led by both Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley, the latter returning after missing the summer’s How We Used To Live shows), a one-two of ‘Lose That Girl’ and ‘He’s On the Phone’ confirms Saint Etienne are in no mood for playing coy.
They affirm their still-watchful muse with a handful of recent diamonds (‘Teenage Winter’, ‘Tonight’) but they come alive (and so does a large and affectionate crowd) when they haul out the big ‘uns: ‘You’re In a Bad Way’, ‘Pale Movie’, ‘Hug My Soul’. ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ is a booming reminder that pop always trounces rock and that the original was always waiting to be re-fitted for the dance floor. They dig out ‘Avenue’ for the first time in years and it’s a breathless, heart-stopping wonder: its sleek proto-soul a searing reminder that Saint Etienne may have begun as studio tinkerers but they wasted no time morphing into the most clued-up of songwriters.
A rattling encore set begins with a tender reading of Cilla Black’s ‘If I Thought You’d Ever Change Your Mind’, which they promptly cock up and are forced to start again. Cracknell, in good humour as ever throughout, laughs it off. “Ooh, she won’t be very pleased…” she warns, as video footage of Black and a host of other stars recently passed away (picture the traditional Oscars roll call but with George Cole) plays behind the band. It’s an oddly sombre end to an evening that has been one part festive, five parts celebratory. Still, they play this one delicately: with love and with care. You suspect Cilla, being Cilla, would have loved it.