Penguin Cafe at Barbican Hall – A Matter of Life…


Penguin Cafe [Arthur Jeffes (piano / ukulele / harmonium), Darren Barry (violin), Cass Browne (percussion), Tom Chichester-Clarke (harmonium / ukulele), Neil Codling (piano / ukulele / cuatro / guitar), Vince Greene (viola), Des Murphy (ukulele), Pete Radcliffe (percussion), Andrew Waterworth (double bass) & Rebecca Waterworth (cello)]

Portico Quartet [Duncan Bellamy (drums / electronics), Milo Fitzpatrick (bass / electronics), Nick Mulvey (hand drums) & Jack Wyllie (saxophone / electronics)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 February, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

As this concert proved, the late-night appearance of Penguin Cafe at last year’s BBC Proms was only the prelude to its current round of activity and, with its own label recently launched and a new album just released, the vision of founder Simon Jeffes in creating music that negotiates the supposed boundaries between classical, folk, jazz and pop remains as relevant now as it was almost four decades ago. Under the aegis of his son Arthur, the present line-up has continued the process of interleaving new and relatively unfamiliar numbers along with a liberal dose of ‘Penguin pleasers’.

The new album, “A Matter of Life…”, was represented by four pieces that confirmed the ensemble’s intention of building on the past while looking to the future. Thus the moody eloquence of the cello-and-piano ‘That Not That’; while the teasing interplay of ‘Pale Peach Jukebox’ offered up rewards of a no-less evocative kind. ‘Landau’ made the most of its vividly pulsating groove (even without Kathryn Tickell’s Northumbrian Pipes to grace the melody line), though it was the haunting modality of ‘From a Blue Temple’ which really pushed the envelope in terms of how Penguin Cafe music might yet evolve.

The bulk of the set consisted of tried and trusted material, though the diversity of this music makes possible any manner of ordering. ‘Dirt’ set things in motion with its breezy take on an obliquely British minimalism, which ‘From the Colonies’ picked up on in a lively combination of counterpoint and calypso. The animated jig of ‘Swing the Cat’ and the sheer verve of ‘In the Back of a Taxi’ (evoking no more and no less than its title) were sure-fast inclusions, while the plaintive charm of ‘Airodante’ fully deserved revival. The genial interplay of ‘Paul’s Dance’ was a test of dexterity which the players came through unfazed, as they did the vibrant syncopation of ‘Music for a Found Harmonium’ as well as the shifting repetitions of ‘Perpetuum Mobile’. This collective virtuosity was no less evident in the playful vamp of ‘Telephone and Rubber Band’ – still the nearest thing to a Penguin ‘hit’, though the Baroque folksiness of ‘Giles Farnaby’s Dream’ runs it close. ‘Beanfields’ was a delightful inclusion, even if Jeffes’s mandolin had to fight to be heard. As to encores, the limpid piano solo ‘Harry Piers’ (included on the new album) was in contrast to the effervescent stomp of ‘Salty Bean Fumble’ that made for an uninhibited finale.

Audience response was as enthusiastic as this music and these musicians warranted. Perhaps a little more emphasis could be given to duo and trio items rather than deploying the whole outfit for most of the set (more viable in the Barbican Hall than in the Royal Albert Hall, at any rate), though this will doubtless be remedied as both repertoire and interpretation open-out in further performances. What is never in doubt is the raison d’être of Penguin Cafe: one that has remained entirely faithful to Simon Jeffes’s envisaging of a music that, stealthily and by degree, helps make the world a more pleasurable place.

Support on this current tour comes from Portico Quartet – a formidably talented foursome whose amalgamating elements of jazz, minimalism, electronica and ambience made for an appealing opening set. Playing half-a-dozen numbers from their albums “Isla” and “Knee-Deep in the North Sea” (recently released in an edition remixed by no less than John Leckie), their fastidious if slightly gutless music as yet lacks that ‘presence’ to make one really sit up and take notice, for all that their musicianship was hardly in doubt. Hopefully this is just a missing component from a promising blueprint.

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