Saint Etienne, Palladium, London

Palladium, London

In another life, Saint Etienne are pop royalty. In this one they practice a kind of pop-not-pop: exquisitely crafted and arranged songs that are always either too arch, too retro or too odd to take their rightful place in the top 10. Nevertheless, some people would argue that everything great about pop music is distilled into the single euphoric "Yes!" in the chorus of He's on the Phone, and all of them are at this one-off Christmas show. Based on audience reaction, every song could have been an international No 1.

Given the venue and the band's sense of humour, it's a shame there isn't a compere from the golden age of LWT. Instead, the first three songs fall flat as Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs lurk behind their synthesizers, stranding singer Sarah Cracknell at the front of the stage. Once reinforced with a full live band, however, they sound as good as they ever have in their 13-year history.

When advance publicity promises "all the hits" it's usually hyperbole, but this really is all the hits, a conveyor belt of singles that leaves no opportunity for a dash to the bar. Every song could be an encore, from Only Love Can Break Your Heart's still-wondrous collision of Neil Young and dub to the kitchen-sink drama of Hobart Paving, with Cracknell's voice as clear as gin and tonic.

This being an occasion for nostalgia, former collaborator Etienne Daho, who could look no more French if he cycled on stage wearing a striped jumper, murmurs in Gallic fashion over Jungle Pulse. There is another mystery guest for I Was Born on Christmas Day, but not Tim Burgess, who sang on the original single. "He's taller, he's better-looking and he's had a bigger hit record," hints Cracknell. "Justin Timberlake!" calls out one wag. It's not, though: it's Edwyn Collins. In another life, he's pop royalty too, and tonight he might as well be. "Do you believe in magic?" trills Cracknell on the final encore, Join Our Club. Yes, I think we do.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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