Penguin Cafe’s recent performance at London’s Barbican Centre is likely to go down, in my own personal annals, as one of my favourite concerts of all time. It still feels like hyperbole to type that: it was only a few weeks ago. But how can I explain? – that wave of euphoria that carries you from your seat, out of the venue and into the night… I only have to think about the gig and I can still feel it. Why should this be?
Many of you will be familiar with this band’s unusual history, but for those new to the name, here’s a summary. The first group, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, was the brainchild of musical polymath Simon Jeffes. I’ve heard several slight variations of their ‘origin story’, but the essentials are these. During a ferocious bout of food poisoning, Jeffes fell into a waking dream. He had a dystopian vision of sorts, of grey, uniform people leading drab existences, and the antidote to this – dreamt up the following day when he felt a little more robust – was a visit to the technicolour Penguin Cafe. He decided to form the house band for that establishment, but in ‘real life’.
Perhaps inescapably, however, there was still something otherworldly about Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s music. Simon Jeffes used his (more or less) classical ensemble as a starting point only, importing freely from folk, rock, jazz and various ‘world’ musics – making the band genuinely unclassifiable. His knowledge and enthusiasm, as boundless as each other, are audible in the Orchestra’s body of work, which radiates joy and effervescence, even in quieter, more measured moments.
Simon Jeffes died tragically young, in 1997. Ten years later, some reunion concerts took place, featuring a number of original Orchestra players alongside Simon’s son Arthur. Ultimately, this hybrid line-up did not last, and Arthur Jeffes emerged with the all-new Penguin Cafe in around 2009.
The crisper, leaner version of the name is perfect for the younger group’s approach. Inevitably, their relationship to the old ‘PCO’ is complex, double-edged. Imagine a band could ‘regenerate’, like the Time Lords in the classic SF show ‘Doctor Who’: the latest incarnation is all-new, behaving differently, achieving different results, but remnants of the ‘past self’ are still in there, somewhere in the chemistry.
As a result, Arthur Jeffes honours his father’s legacy in at least two ways. Penguin Cafe include some of the old Orchestra classics in their live sets, for sure; they’re not the kind of group to deny their audience that pleasure. But Jeffes is also moving on, developing his own, equally original voice that grows more and more distinctive with each album.
The old Orchestra were often an exotic cocktail, fizzing with ideas and a subtle sense of abandon. Present-day Penguin Cafe can do all that: but increasingly, I sense two further elements to their music. First, a stronger emphasis on a minimal / contemporary classical feel that I think might stem from Arthur’s main instrument being piano (rather than Simon’s guitar). Second, the influence of electronica – if there’s such a thing as ‘acoustica’, it’s Penguin Cafe, who are able to emulate that genre’s level of hypnotic, addictive beauty with classical instruments alone.
As such, I feel a vein of discipline, even restraint, running through Penguin Cafe’s work that gives it a streamlined, contemporary feel without in any way diminishing its bright, shining joy. I think it’s no accident that, for the last couple of albums, Penguin Cafe have found a welcoming home at the elegant, avant-garde electronica label Erased Tapes – long may that relationship continue.
To my astonishment, there was no support act at the Barbican. Instead, Penguin Cafe played a heroically generous set (a good two hours, even accounting for the interval) ranging across most of their career. The reception was such that you felt the packed Hall would have happily stayed there to listen all night.
There was definitely a celebratory feel to the evening. Jeffes made for a genial, self-effacing host, diligently introducing each track but visibly relieved to let the music do most of the talking. The latest, superb album – 2019’s ‘Handfuls of Night’ – has not been given its full due live thanks to Covid, and it was thrilling to finally hear its epic highlights, such as ‘Chapter’ and ‘Gentoo Origin’, stretch out to breathe in the expanse of the Barbican’s Main Hall. ‘Chapter’ in particular, a Penguin Cafe take on a John Barry or Lalo Schifrin detective theme, introduced some surprisingly funky bass into proceedings, the track just one example of how the current incarnation of the group can fashion the most subtle of hooks into an unforgettable, cyclic anthem.
The band are also about to release a 10th anniversary edition of their debut album ‘A Matter of Life…’, giving them the perfect excuse to resurrect some of their own early gems, such as the keening, insistent ‘Landau’ and the ominously seductive ‘From a Blue Temple’.
Perhaps the tunes that benefited most from the auditorium were the selections from 2017’s ‘The Imperfect Sea’: possibly the most perfect Penguin Cafe album so far, with some of their most propulsive and insistent repertoire – ‘Ricercar’, ‘Protection’ and the skyscraping ‘Rescue’, arriving right at the end of the main set – soaring around us. You would believe a penguin could fly.
Imperfect Playlist: I’ve included here a Spotify playlist to give what I hope is a flavour of both PCO and Penguin Cafe music. Rather than try to sum up their entire combined works (impossible), I’ve focused on a combination of personal highlights from the set, along with some favourite ‘oldies’. I hope you enjoy it.