Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 24/07/2004.
Somerset House now holds one ten-day series of gigs a year, rather than two separate weeks: you've just missed the 2008 season, where we saw The Blue Nile. It's still a lovely place to see a show when the weather's right.
Open air concerts are always a bit of a lottery when you're in London. But the Somerset House Series may be even more of a lottery than most. That's no reflection on the venue, mind you: they've been running gigs there for a couple of summers now, and they've got it down to a fine art. A large Government building slap bang in the centre of London, its open courtyard is big enough to hold three thousand people, a large stage and a couple of efficiently maintained bars. (Plus the building itself can provide an ample supply of equally efficiently maintained toilets, a useful bonus for the thirsty concertgoer.)
No, I've no problems with the venue at all. But when they announced the acts who'd be playing there over the space of a week in July 2004, it was a strong enough lineup to make me want to see all of them. That's five open air shows spread over a period of six consecutive nights. Given that the second of those nights was St Swithin's Day - England's precipitation-based variant of Groundhog Day, when the appearance of rain traditionally means we'll get it for the next forty days as well - what were my chances of getting to the end of the run without being pissed down on? There was only one way to find out.
So on the first day - with huge thanks to Jon, who spotted when the final batch of tickets became available weeks after the show had sold out - I head off to see PJ Harvey, with Moris Teper playing in support. Teper's grungy electric blues, derived from his time playing with the likes of Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits, fit in well with Polly's own worldview. As might his fractured guitar sound, permanently on the brink of collapse. Then again, that might just be down to the way support acts always get the shitty end of the mixing desk, because the sound is diamond sharp by the time Polly arrives on stage.
Harvey has such a reputation as a miseryguts on record, it's easy to forget that in a live environment she can perform the living hell out of her songs. Wearing a tiny yellow dress that has everyone (male or female) with a cameraphone kicking their way to the front of the stage for a better shot, she seriously works the room (or courtyard, rather) with a collection of her hardest, rockiest, Who The Fuck?iest songs. There's no room for gloomy introspection in this set, apart from a brief pause in the middle for a couple of the slower numbers from Uh Huh Her. She even has a fit of the giggles at one point, which makes us all love her even more: though disturbingly, it's during the unrelenting misery of Down By The Water. It all adds up to make her an utterly mesmeric presence on stage, despite the best efforts of Josh Klinghoffer to upstage her: when he's not staggering round in that young indie guitarist equivalent of drunken kung fu, he's bashing a spare drumkit so hard that the cymbals fall off.
And on the second day, I return to Somerset House to watch Phill Jupitus (plus his glamorous assistant Darth Maul) hosting a game of Play Your Cards Right while we wait for Lemon Jelly to take the stage. A German student called Micah (renamed Michael for the duration of the game) answers questions of this calibre: "Somerset House was a popular form of dance music invented in Chicago in the 1980s. True or false?" Why should we care? Because we've been told in advance what the prize is: Michael isn't just playing to win a signed poster and a kiddy tricycle for herself, she's also playing for three thousand exclusive Lemon Jelly CDs. If she wins, everyone in the audience will be given one on the way out of the gig: if she loses, they'll be handed out to the audience at the Big Chill festival instead. Oh, we care all right.
Which sums up Lemon Jelly's appeal: sure, they're whimsical and lightweight, and appear to be having far too much fun on stage for their own good, but everyone else is allowed in on the joke too. Their old favourite tunes are rapturously performed and received - several people in the audience have even brought wooden ducks on poles specifically for waving during Nice Weather For Ducks. Meanwhile, the few new songs premiered here seem heavily reliant on cheesy seventies AOR samples, not that there's anything wrong with that. There are also a couple of ironically noisy ones based around shouting and guitars ("we are DEATH JELLY!"), not that there's anything wrong with that either. The Belated Birthday Girl frequently complains when I take her to gigs featuring earnest young men prodding at laptops, but Fred and Nick manage to pull off an electronica performance that's genuinely a show, with lots of live instruments, large scale projections and corny banter. (Oh, and Michael won, so I'm now the proud owner of a 50 minute DJ set that's not afraid to cross-cut between Dread Zeppelin and Russ Conway.)
The Belated Birthday Girl and I have spent several weekends during the last twelve months in boutique hotels all across Europe. (Bear with me, this is relevant.) Blakes in Amsterdam, the Morrison in Dublin, the St Martins Lane in London, the Malmaison in Manchester: if there's one thing we found they all had in common, it was the use of interchangeable, slightly synthetic bossa nova tunes in their lobbies. Coincidentally, the one hotel that broke this trend - the rather lovely Blanch House in Brighton - tended to play lots of Lemon Jelly instead. But for the most part, hotel muzak seems to be currently locked into a slick, computerised, soulless Latin groove. And it would appear from the evidence of the third day that Bebel Gilberto is the queen of that groove.
There's no denying she puts on a show: her onstage persona is monstrously flirty, as she claims at one point "England, you're the best country in the world... [long pause] ...after Brazil and Italy." (She also claims later on that English men are the best in the world, which is palpable nonsense.) And her band perform the songs with flawless precision. But it's significant that most of the audience appear to treat the performance as background music, and talk all the way through it. The problem is, this is music which is putting so much effort into trying to be cool, there's little or no actual heat being generated: most of the time it just burbles along at one level like those hotel lobbies, with no real peaks or troughs. For all that technical excellence, there's nothing approaching the emotion that Lemon Jelly can get out of an acoustic guitar and a few old machines. The result is, for my money, the weakest concert of the week.
[And on the fourth day we take a break from Somerset House, and head off to a rather nice Saturday night barbie at Lou and Corinne's. Still in the open air: still no rain. There's some minor unpleasantness involving those twats from South West Trains cancelling the last train back to London, and forcing us to stop in a Holiday Inn for the night, but that needn't concern us here. Let's move on.]
Belle And Sebastian start their Sunday night show one hour earlier than the rest of the week, at 7pm rather than 8pm. I'd assumed it was because of one of those archaic laws that restricts the pursuit of many old English trades on the Sabbath, from food retail to child prostitution. But no, it's because Belle and Sebastian have a two hour set they want to perform, on top of the enjoyable support by The Shins from Albuquerque. Aside from PJ Harvey, B&S are the only other act playing two shows at Somerset House, and they appear to have sold out both nights effortlessly. The audience is heavily on their side, notably when singer Stuart Murdoch fearlessly throws his mike into the audience to let them have a go, and towards the end when some punters are happily dragged on stage to dance with the band.
I don't really know much of the band's work, other than by reputation and the occasional single. But there's a very obvious classic pop tradition being upheld here. Apart from the impressive size of the group (twelve people, including a string section of up to seven members), there's not much else to interest you visually - the closest thing to stagecraft is when Murdoch reveals he's wearing a Cliff Richard t-shirt, just before performing the shameless In The Country ripoff they call Wrapped Up In Books. Even when Murdoch realises he's performing outside a tax office and suggests the audience should "smash some windows and fuck shit up", it's done with the subtext of "if that's not too much trouble". But the songs and performance make up for all that. You try to remember the last time you heard a band with this much infectious enthusiasm for the simple pop song: and then Murdoch puts on a pork pie hat and sings Madness' Embarrassment and you think "yes, that'll be it". Much as I love industrial noise and all that, gigs like this remind me that ultimately, Tunes Will Out.
The final show of the week is a world music double bill, which smacks a little of tokenism, as if neither band can be trusted to sustain an entire evening. In fact, it's a very neat pairing of acts: an African band with Cuban influences, followed by a Cuban band with African influences. The former is Orchestra Baobab, who sound like most African bands you know, but have two secret weapons: guitarist Barthelemy Attisso and saxophonist Issa Cissokho. Most of their songs have a similar structure: the band lays down a solid four bar groove, Attisso adds some sweet highlife guitar over the top, and then Cissokho - who's been gurning and showboating stage left through all this, looking for all the world like a Senegalese Rich Hall - leaps to the front and bashes out a showstopping solo. Cissokho has a whole battery of audience-pleasing tricks, notably holding a note for several days with one hand, while wagging a finger at the audience with the other. By the end of Baobab's set, he's playing a series of three note phrases then turning to us for applause after each one. Which we give him anyway, because ham is enjoyable whichever continent it comes from.
At first glance, the Afro Cuban All Stars appear to be more regimented than their support act: over a dozen musicians, all suited and booted, playing in a traditional big band format with music stands and a dedicated bandleader. (And to keep up the theme of world music performers who resemble B-list comedians, bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez looks like a Cuban Mike Harding.) But their music is much looser and less tied to four-four rhythms than Baobab's - at any given moment, two or three apparently incompatible time signatures are battling it out for supremacy. Where Baobab felt like a two-man band with backup, ACAS is a more democratic affair, with Gonzalez giving everyone a turn in the limelight. He particularly enjoys telling the story of the band's trombonist, "who married a British girl... from Cardiff" - they were divorced two months later, but at least he managed to get a song out of it first. By the end of the gig, at the curfew-smashing time of 11.35pm (all the other shows this week have stopped dead at eleven), the whole audience is leaping up and down and waving their hands in the air like ragdolls on sticks. It's a fabulous end to an extraordinary week of shows. And it didn't rain during any of them.
[And on the seventh day I push my luck just that little bit further by going to the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park, to see their new production of Camelot. And twenty minutes before the end of Act One, as King Arthur launches into How To Handle A Woman, the skies open and we all get drenched. Apologies to Nick, who organised our visit to the theatre, but I guess I'm not as water-resistant as you thought I was. Being a monkey, and all.]
Somerset House has it all, really. A packed programme of concerts and events in the summer, and a hugely popular ice rink in the winter. The one thing it doesn't have any more is a full set of records of births, marriages and deaths for the UK: you'll need to go to the Family Records Office for that now.
Grolsch are sponsoring the Summer Set, the next series of concerts to be held at Somerset House in August 2004. Visit their site for details of upcoming performances by Air, Turin Brakes, Basement Jaxx, Beverley Knight and Snow Patrol.
The Open Air Theatre in Regents Park provided the other outdoor entertainment of the week. It doesn't always rain there, honestly. The 2004 season features the aforementioned Camelot, the inevitable A Midsummer Night's Dream, and a truly atrocious production of Henry IV Part I.
Blakes [now called The Dylan], The Morrison, St Martins Lane Hotel, Malmaison Manchester and Blanch House can be visited if you want to check out our theories regarding boutique hotel lobby music. Further research assistance is available from Mr and Mrs Smith. (We'll leave the Holiday Inn Woking out of this for now, thank you.)