POP MUSIC / The Saints go plodding in: Joseph Gallivan on St Etienne at the new Shepherd's Bush Empire

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The Independent Online
If one had any doubts about how to find the new music venue the Empire, one had only to follow the thriftshop-chic crowd as they struggled off the train at Shepherd's Bush in their bri-nylon shirts, pink jumpers and leopard-skin coats. Inside the theatre, they sat patiently through Secret Knowledge, a techno duo fronted by a brave young American who hopped round in head-dress, bra and leggings.

St Etienne looked plain in comparison. Pete Wiggs - the one who looks like Hopkirk (deceased) - strutted about in a tight suit, while the two girl backing singers squeezed into children's T-shirts and shimmied fairly ineptly through the instrumental opener 'Cool Kids of Death'. Lead singer Sarah Cracknell received great cheers when at last she appeared (in her nightie) and sang a wobbly version of 'Pale Movie', another Tiger Bay track. After the delicate folk tune 'Marble Lions', it felt like we'd had every possible stylistic permutation, but there were plenty more to come.

This - their diversity - is the special beauty of St Etienne. On record you are seduced by Cracknell's lustrous vocal, amused by the mock-literary lyrics, and kept busy by an array of synthetic instruments. Live, though, they make no pretence to such perfection. Real drums added a rough edge to the sequenced beats, and the general mayhem on stage was an interesting supplement. The band's personnel had increased from three to nine, although the songwriter Bob Stanley still won't appear except to DJ between acts. The record curator in everyone (well, Stanley at least) was indulged with sugary cover versions of Elvis Presley's 'Coming In Loaded' and Michel Polnareff's 'La Poupee Qui Fait Non'.

Although they flit between dub reggae, folk ballads and garage house, St Etienne gave all their songs a plodding beat which set the rhythm of the evening. Song by song, the massed ranks were getting out of their seats and dancing, and by the time of 'Nothing Can Stop Us', as light as a Dusty Springfield song, everyone was on their feet, waving their arms. It was a pleasant surprise to find, under all the layers of irony, a real emotion - joy.

After a raucous MC had wrung even louder cheers from the crowd, the band came back with another palpable hit, 'Who Do You Think You Are?'. The emperors of pop look rather good in their second- hand clothes.