Working with promoter Metropolis Music since 2006, Somerset House turns its courtyard into a 3,500 cap outdoor space for 11 nights in July.
The historic courtyard provides a platform for the up-and-coming, the angular, the edgy, the novel and the historic, Adele, Amy Winehouse, Mogwai, PJ Harvey, Basement Jaxx, Robert Plant and Grace Jones by way of example, under the Somerset House Summer Series banner.
“For 2019, we were looking for performers saying something about the political climate, new sounds, new music, who are killer live too,” Sophie Hewlett, head of producing at Somerset House, tells Event Industry News. Nao, Sons of Kemet, Rosalia, Doves and The Good The Bad & The Queen were among the headliners meeting the criteria this time.
Playing this Neoclassical space, which has history in politics, in the arts, in science and learning and, as Damon Albarn points out during The Good The Bad & The Queen set, in taxes, is an opportunity for artists to do something extraordinary in an extraordinary setting.
A Grade 1 listed building, suppliers must leave no trace – at all – at Somerset House. With just an inch either side of trucks coming off the Strand, or several flights of twisting stairs to climb from the Embankment, it’s not the easiest venue to load into. That start and finish is the biggest hurdle though.
Providing the stage and support structures to the Summer Series for the last five years, Nononsense Group brings its 15m Apollo roof to site via the Strand. Once the kit is delivered, Nononsense’s director, Liz Madden, tells this magazine, there’s a straightforward build.
“It’s all hardstanding – no mud – and by and large we’re working with familiar faces,” Madden explains. “It’s a very good team of companies/of people and there are clear plans to help suppliers work around each other.”
Among subtle changes to the model, in step with the client’s sustainability drive, Nononsense Group wrapped one FoH position inside another, the outer serving the music and the inner, clad in a white box made by the venue’s carpentry team, there for the film festival that follows on. Otherwise, the Summer Series’ overall shape is set in/around stone, designed to serve the audience and the sound, which can bounce around the bricks given the slightest opportunity.
Britannia Row has long delivered telling answers to taxing questions at the Summer Series, including Mogwai’s request for surround sound in 2007.
Evolving through the years, the system currently consists of an L-Acoustics K2 line array driven by DigiCo SD10 desks at FoH and on monitors.
“This gig is all about controlling the offsite noise,” Dave Compton, project manager for Brit Row, says simply. “That’s paramount, there are no exceptions. It means everybody working together, the right kind of equipment, technical knowledge, experience and lots of communication.”
To make the venue competitive on the London music map without punishing ticket prices, sponsorship is a vital element in the Summer Series success story.
“American Express is a long-term partner and it’s really open to everything we do,” Hewlett says. “In terms of the programme AMEX trusts us,” and so, with the Summer Series track record, it should.
The sponsor introduced the AMEX Summer Set, back of house, this year for the aftershow, which served cardholders, artists and guests. Overlooking the Thames, the covered area and terrace are there with food and a licensed bar accompanied by DJ sets programmed by Metropolis Music and Somerset House.
Taking The Good The Bad & The Queen’s turn by way of example, the Somerset House Summer Series version 2019 was a(nother) success story.
This was the band’s hometown show behind second LP Merrie Land, ‘a reluctant goodbye letter’ to the European Union from a band, Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon, Tony Allen and Simon Tong, with all the talent, chops and ideology the occasion required.
The band performs in front of a Simonon backdrop with a string section, bongos, a stirring Welsh choir, on occasion, and practised stagecraft.
A capacity audience at Somerset House, almost every one of them an absolute Albarn acolyte, gets almost all the new album first, a sombre, long-form ode to the community just beyond our shores and Britain’s place within it/without it.
Albarn has lots of chatter between songs and the Phil Daniels from Park Life character he assumes lifts the mood of Merrie Land’s address.
For part 2, ‘which is part 1’, the singer quips, The Good The Bad & The Queen give us highlights from their eponymous debut album.
Released in 2007 it’s loaded with observations about the state of this country too. It has the same weight of instrumentation but gathers pace, and some rock ‘n’ roll, under the stage lights.
To Albarn’s left, introduced early on to massive applause, Simonon wears his bass higher than he did in the Clash but still manages to throw shapes from those halcyon days and, fittingly in this crazy political environment, A Soldier’s Tale kicks off like a Sandinista! outtake.
Three Changes, Green Fields and particularly the title track, which wraps the set, leave Somerset House bouncing but it’s one of the new lyrics that’s haunted me since:
Are we green are we pleasant?
We are not either of those Father
We are a shaking wreck where nothing grows
Lost in the sky coloured oils of Merrie Land
A great show then that ticks all the creative/novel/politically astute boxes while underlining our predicament.