Penquin Cafe – St George’s, Bristol

Saturday 5th October, 2019

I saw Penquin Cafe in 2017 as part of 40 gigs, as part of Erased Tapes is 10 and had one of the most gloriously joy filled evenings of music I’ve ever experienced. So it really was a very easy decision to get tickets for this concert, especially as they were playing at one of my favourite places in Bristol, St George’s.

The first half of the concert was Penquin Cafe playing their latest album in its entirety, a darker and more coherent body of work than I’d heard before. Mostly written for a Greenpeace film about penquins (I wonder why they were asked?!) there was bleakness and wildness about the music, conjuring up the Antartic landscape and the hardy penquins who call it home. The opening piece was played almost in darkness, with soft lighting spilling through; small shafts of light penetrating the gloom. I wasn’t surprised to learn it was called Winter Sun, the string section and lighting working together to create an atmospheric mood. There were playful elements to the music too and the overall effect was to create a hopeful vista that left me feeling relaxed in an otherwordly way.

There were fewer members of Penquin Cafe this time, there had seemed to be about 25 of them last time I saw them, this time piano, bass, percussion, viola, cello and violins only. The sounds they made were very beautiful and with the almost perfect acoustics of St George’s the sound was round, full and suited the required sparseness of the landscape they were inspired by. There was a small part of me that missed the larger ensemble though.

It wasn’t all icy wilderness and isolated penquin colonies, there was also music inspired by ancient Greek mathematics by way of the BT engaged tone which was inspired, funny and touching in equal measure. Of course there was Perpetuum Mobile, I am sure they will be playing that at every concert forever. A solo piano track inspired by the kora, the west African percussive harp that is so spectacular to hear, was wonderful, as was The Sound Of Someone You Love Going Away And It Doesn’t Matter, which may replace Your Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart And I Can’t Scratch It as my favourite long song title.

Arthur Jeffes formed Penquin Cafe as a continuation of his father Simon’s work with Penquin Cafe Orchestra and a more loving tribute from son to father I don’t think you will find. There is tenderness and so much love in Penquin Cafe, it is felt in every finger stroke on the piano and in the warmth they create with their music. In keeping the spirit of eccentricity, intelligence and creativity alive in the music, Arthur is not only honouring his fathers memory, but ensuring it remains vital and relevant. He is not gone while he is still here. The continuum of musical notes, scales and cadences will outlive us all by centuries.

This was a different sort of Penquin Cafe concert than last time I saw them and that is no bad thing. Last time was joyfilled and joyful. This was more thoughtful and introspective. Both wonderful, relevant and useful experiences. Music that leaves you gently pondering, that it unclassifiable, that is made and shared with gentleness and great humanity is always music I will want to listen to.


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