Belle and Sebastian, Somerset House, London

Tigermilk in their tanks
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The Independent Culture

Somerset House is perhaps most associated with the register of births, marriages and deaths, though that service has now moved. So it was fitting that the offspring of baby boomers were out in force to see a band of whom their parents would undoubtedly approve.

Somerset House is perhaps most associated with the register of births, marriages and deaths, though that service has now moved. So it was fitting that the offspring of baby boomers were out in force to see a band of whom their parents would undoubtedly approve.

Enter The Shins, a four-piece indie-rock band from Albuquerque, who open with gusto but win little more than polite applause, largely from a hardcore of supporters. The audience clearly prefer the sound of their own voices above the soaring melody lines of The Shins' front man, James Mercer. Despite the chatter, the band persist with some bright, brisk tunes, peaking with the excellent "Kissing the Lipless". Spider-Man's girlfriend may sport a Shins T-shirt in the movie, but the suspicion is that the band would prosper more in less exalted surroundings that tonight's.

After The Shins' slow-burn start, Belle and Sebastian hit the ground running. For devotees, there could hardly be a better opener than "The State I Am in". The sing-along contingent echo those wonderful lines about "my brother confessing he was gay", while collective hair stands on end as cut-glass guitar punctuates the first verse. Following with the next three tracks from Tigermilk, the Belles' main man, Stuart Murdoch, lays to rest the ghosts of a PR-unfriendly past with confident, relaxed patter between songs.

Looking around, you wonder if so many fine-arts students have ever gathered under one patch of sky. Belle and Sebastian, inspired by the splendid setting, echo that thought with a brief digression on architecture.

The tempo increases with material from the recent album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress. "You Don't Send Me" is handled confidently, though it's not their best work. The poignant "Lord Anthony" is much stronger, matched by Murdoch's fine vocal. An impromptu-or-was-it? rendering of "Blue Suede Shoes" precedes "Stay Loose", which then dispels any lingering fears that the band would struggle to do full justice to Trevor Horn's production values once they took to the live stage.

What Horn succeeded in achieving to spectacular effect on Dear Catastrophe Waitress was to enlarge the band's essential sound yet remain true to its core values. The live version is faithful and just as pleasing. Oddly, the band members are not credited on B&S albums while guest musicians receive copious mentions, creating a blur of who does what. Musical chairs continue on stage, as band members swop instruments and songs are augmented by innumerable extras.

The band hit a purple patch with a storming version of "The Boy with the Arab Strap", followed by "I'm a Cuckoo", their homage to Thin Lizzy from the Lost in Translation soundtrack, a quintessential summer song that sears the warm night air. "Stars of Track and Field" from album two sounds as fresh as ever and the rocked up ending works brilliantly. A blissful live performance of "Step into My Office, Baby" convinces that this is much more rewarding than listening to a band recreating the sound of their albums, albeit more loudly.

B&S end the night with "Sleep the Clock Around", climaxing in an instrumental, tour de force and sparking two equally splendid encores.

Tony Hardy successfully bid to review a summer concert of his choice in The Independent's Christmas charity auction

The Summer Set runs from 4 to 8 August (020-7287 0932; www.somerset-house.org.uk/summer)

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