Just a few weeks after the Route of Kings shows at London's Hyde Park were cancelled, it was great to see the triumph of a more modestly scaled, smartly programmed long weekend of gigs in the stately Somerset House courtyard. It might not seem terribly rock'n'roll to hold concerts next to the terrifying Inland Revenue, but at a reasonably sized venue with immaculate acoustics, where bad views were scarce, that wasn't a worry. Someone upstairs must agree, too, given the perfect weather.
More to the point, the programmers are getting it spot on. Rock gigs at Somerset House began in 2001, with a blissful night of country-soul from Lambchop; last year, Orbital and an orchestra-enhanced Tindersticks played consecutive shows there, the former's thunderous set proving them to be no dance dinosaurs and the latter playing on peerlessly autumnal form. The setting offered many happy accidents, too: seagulls cooed for Lambchop, and Orbital's techno tumult drew appropriately ominous stormclouds.
This year, the dance slot was taken by Röyksopp, the Norwegian lounge-techno scamps whose Melody AM album has seen them become a huge live-dance draw. It's easy to see why, too. The duo play down their prog-ish fetishisation of detail live in favour of pumped-up pop-house, delivered with winning energy, eccentricity and personality. A cover of Coldplay's "Clocks" briefly prompts the dread thought "dinner- party dance", but a chipper, Orbital-lite "Eple" and a pummelling "Poor Leno" soon transform the courtyard into one big, happy dancefloor.
Saturday and Sunday's comedown slots veered from the rustic to the synthetic: a spectacular-sounding double bill of Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man with the crooked country of Sparklehorse, and chic torch-and-techno from Goldfrapp. Oddly, Sparklehorse struggle a little, possibly because they major in reticence; Mark Linkous's frail voice and songs don't really expand to fill the space, relying instead on pulling you in. Still, Linkous finally works his cracked magic with blissful renditions of "Homecoming Queen" and "Sad and Beautiful World", although his too-brief support slot means that he's done minutes later.
No such problems for Gibbons and Rustin Man, whose moody folk-noir is played with such taut, restrained dynamism that it seems to seep into the courtyard's every crevice. The duo have been touring with their band since last year's sublime Out of Season album, and they manage to find new spaces in its timeless songs. The already spare "Resolve" is played with breathtaking subtlety, leaving you hanging on the gaps between every word; by contrast, "Tom the Model" unfurls luxuriously under deep red lights. Gig of the weekend, no question.
Goldfrapp can't touch them, but Will Gregory and singer Alison Goldfrapp are almost starting to cut it live. Almost, because they're still that bit too stiff. The electro raunch-pop tracks from their Black Cherry album often play like lab experiments rather than full-bodied songs; likewise, the spooked lullabies of their debut album, Felt Mountain, are slick but far from felt. Still, "Black Cherry" graduates from ad-music ballad to swooning set-closer nicely, and Goldfrapp is at least starting to acknowledge her audience. "You've woken up!" she cries, after a decently chugging "Train" gets a cheer. Let's hope the songs follow suit soon.
A US alt.rock double-bill of the artful Yo La Tengo and Tex-Mex heroes Calexico wraps things up happily for now, the sole, tiny quibble being that Calexico's headline slot seemed to be granted on the basis of number of band members rather than strength of personality. The three-strong, long-standing Yo La Tengo play a blinder, slipping seamlessly between weathered balladry, summer pop, neo-jazz and damn sexy guitar-mangling with what seems like sheer, seat-of-pants intuition. By contrast, Calexico's brassy, bordertown country is high-concept, intermittently rousing stuff, but oddly low on character and, perhaps, a little too familiar by now.
Still, it's no slight on the overall series. The gigs and setting offered something you don't often get on London's live music scene: a new, great idea, niftily executed. Roll on the August shows.
There are more Summer at Somerset House concerts from 6 Aug (0871 230 2620; www.ticketmaster.co.uk)
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies