PENGUIN CAFE – CORN EXCHANGE (BRIGHTON DOME), BRIGHTON 17.11.23
I’ve had the honour of reviewing so many bands and attending so many shows since I started writing for Brighton & Hove News back in May, whether it be catching up on the local music scene at venues like the Green Door Store or The Hope & Ruin, witnessing some truly explosive and left-field artists like Avalanche Kaito and Unschooling, or being given the chance to watch and review some of my all-time favourite artists, among them include Gary Numan, Swans, VNV Nation and Xiu Xiu. However, on Friday 17 November, I achieved a personal first … being able to review a band for the second time!
The chamber music-oriented Penguin Cafe is an exotic post-minimalism collective, fronted by composer and multi-instrumentalist Arthur Jeffes. The band are, of course, notable for being the latest incarnation of Arthur’s father, Simon Jeffes’ titular Penguin Cafe Orchestra, which remained active for three decades from the early 1970s onwards. The vision of the Cafe stems from an ill-received set of dreams Simon encountered after contracting food poisoning, among which included a distinctive territory of the notion of living in your own plane of existence against the grim, dystopia of concrete blocks and anti-socialite living.
The Penguin Cafe Orchestra itself released five studio albums in its original tenure before Simon’s untimely death at the age of 48 in 1997. However, after a semi-reunion set of shows to celebrate his memory back in 2007, led by Arthur, the concept for revitalising PCO’s music was born, officially leading to a formation in 2009 before releasing their debut album of original material, ‘A Matter Of Life’, two years later.
Since then, Penguin Cafe have blessed fans with six studio albums, including a revisitation of their debut, with the release of their most recent album, ‘Rain Before Seven…’, continuing to receive high praise as one of this incarnation’s best releases!
The last time I saw the group, they were touring the album through various record stores in the UK, making a brief stop at Resident Music in early July. In the show, of which a more stripped back arrangement of three band members, including Arthur, was displayed, we were treated to most of the album’s tracklist. However, at the Corn Exchange leg of the Brighton Dome (in what appears to be its first live music performance there after six years of refurbishment), myself, and a sold-out room of adoring fanatics were invited to a full-scale performance of the entire album from start to finish!
My entering and subsequent seating at the Corn Exchange felt quite something, thanks in part to the array of original Penguin Cafe Orchestra artworks that were framed and placed behind the merch table in the lobby; but also, it took me back to a recent experience I encountered when watching a Gavin Bryars performance at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, reserved and calculated in structure and performance. Before long, the lights would dim down as the Penguin Cafe septet made their way on-stage.
The trio of Arthur Jeffes on piano, Andy Waterworth on double bass and percussionist Avvon Chambers, who were all present at the Resident Music show, are all still here of course, joined by multi-instrumentalist Darren Berry and a string trio of cellist Rebecca Waterworth and violinists Clem Brown and Oli Langford.
Arthur proceeded to welcome us all to this beautiful venue before detailing the itinerary for the evening: first we’d be treated to ‘Rain Before Seven…’, and then following a short interval, they would welcome us into a set of twelve Penguin Cafe-related favourites from the jovial ‘Air à Danser’ and ‘Bean Fields’ to the melancholic ‘Harry Piers’ and the iconic ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’.
The album setlist begins, quite naturally, with ‘Welcome To London’. Of course, there’s a grand array of instrumentation here compared to the Resident Show, with gorgeous swells among the string trio playing atop the linear 5/4 groove held in by Avvon, Andy and Arthur. While this track features some minimalism elements that can be found in the Orchestra’s work, there’s quite a cinematic change of mood, prominent in most of Arthur’s incarnation’s output. The almost disco-like propulsion of ‘Temporary Shelter From The Storm’ is a solid elevation in dynamics from the previous cut, with a simple two chord progression playing host to the melancholic string arrangement and Darren’s intricate pattern on the balafon (a type of xylophone that resonates via gourds).
The light-hearted atmosphere of the Cafe continues into the song ‘In Re Budd’, dedicated to the memory of English composer Harold Budd, known for his explorations of ambient music as well as his collaborations with John Foxx, Brian Eno and Andy Partridge among others. This in mind, the playful atmosphere is quite an interesting approach for such a manner, with polyrhythmic piano melodies from Arthur and Darren’s cuatro performance being akin to something you could hear from Simon Jeffes or PCO regular contributor Geoffrey Richardson.
Now, we come to what is possibly my favourite track on the new album, ‘Second Variety’. Something I always loved about this song, and several other songs of the Cafe (such as ‘White Mischief’ and ‘The Sound of Someone You Love…’), is the weightlessness one gets when listening to it. That weightless feeling is in full exposure as it’s played here, with a beautiful chord progression on the piano, with the string trio coming in, one member at a time. The track has a very organic arrangement with Andy’s free-time basslines and Avvon’s glockenspiel being exceptional additions to the soundplay. Darren heads from the balafon to join the string trio-turned-quartet on the song ‘Galahad’, opening with some flourishing drones in Bb and a call and response motif between Clementine and Oli.
Eventually, the track drifts into a glistening piano phase in 7/8, against the band’s common time pulse, which creates a jarring phasing rhythm that works so well! Andy’s plucked bass notes and a propeller-like momentum on the strings (think ‘Good Vibrations’ by The Beach Boys), proceed to draw the track to a soft close. ‘Might Be Something’ features a similar build in texture as Arthur’s polyrhythmic piano phrases and Andy’s sliding bass notes are joined by the string quartet, building upon each other while Avvon provides a brushed drum groove.
Arthur introduces the song ‘No One Really Leaves…’ as by its previous title of ‘Everyone Dies’ (possibly in jest?), before entering a grand progression with gospel-like piano chords and a simple, minimal drum rhythm. As with several tracks from Penguin Cafe, there’s a strong, yet subtle rhythmic complexity that sits in place on the song, before the song slows down to a close. The pace kicks up a bit on the track ‘Find Your Feet’ with an almost calypso-like rhythm and an arrangement similar to that of the opening song ‘Welcome To London’. The band displays their incredible knack of dynamic awareness, giving each other plenty of space to move around the room. Speaking of the room, I couldn’t help but marvel at the group’s red silhouettes painted against the walls of the Corn Exchange!
The first of the final two tracks of the first set, ‘Lamborghini 754’ (named after Arthur’s mother, sculptor Emily Young’s tractor), features my favourite string arrangement of the first set, intricate and warm, as well as the glorious longing piano lines that evokes memories of his father’s performances. And finally, ‘Goldfinch Yodel’, a track commissioned for the bird-oriented compilation ‘For The Birds: The Birdsong Project’ (which coincidentally got nominated for a Grammy this year!) closes the ‘Rain Before Seven…’ set. Already, just from the shuffling rhythm alone, one could compare this with other PCO classics in its emotion like Giles Farnaby’s ‘Dream’ or Pythagoras’s ‘Trousers’). Fluctuations in timbre and pacing occur in a faultless manner, changing from a shuffled dance to a slow waltz in a matter of seconds! As the song peters away into ambience, closing the first half, the Cafe is already met with standing ovation from the entire room, and the show’s not even over yet!
As per, I grab myself a cup of orange juice before making my way back into the auditorium for the second set, when I suddenly notice the three life-size penguin heads placed at the front of the stage have seemed to have disappeared…! Arthur, Darren and Avvon make their way onto the stage, donning those penguin heads, with ukuleles and cuatros in hand… that can only mean one thing: ‘Paul’s Dance’! The infamous Penguin Cafe Orchestra classic opens the second set with back and forth patterns between the trio that lead to dancing from them, and smiles from us. Before long, Arthur announces the song ‘Air à Danser’ to be played next, leading to sighs of pleasure from the crowd (a notion that ceases to halt with every subsequent song of the setlist).
Darren’s opening noodles on the cuatro ascend to a glorious repetitive motif, packed with joy and wonder and backed by a walking bassline. Fans will clock the rhythmless flourishes between sections that glide around the room effortlessly before the drums begin to form a conventional groove. Following this track is the iconic ‘Perpetuum Mobile’, one of the Orchestra’s most infamous pieces, built around an arpeggiated melody in 15/8, a very complex time signature. Arthur’s piano remains a constant as the melodic motif shifts across strings and double bass, beautifully evolving from start to finish.
‘Steady State’, the closing track to the Orchestra’s self-titled 1981 album, followed suit, led by Arthur’s paced piano phrases backed by the string quartet building upon it, layer by layer. Avvon’s subtle hand percussion and Andy’s plucked double bass provide a sturdy backbone to such a majestic track that acts as one of my favourite album closers of all-time! The song ‘In The Back Of A Taxi’ features most of the band engaging in percussive tapping and shaking, sans Darren on the cuatro. Before long, Arthur and Rebecca introduce their respective piano and cello, with the remaining string players providing some very bluegrass-style performances!
Confessed by Arthur as a track that is not often played as part of the Penguin Cafe setlist, ‘Bean Fields’ was a refreshing shift in pace and dynamics as one of their more playful songs, something you could swing your partner to! Here, we see Arthur away from his piano and on the ukulele playing the song’s iconic melody before Oli and Clementine join him. Following a band introduction, we come to one of the band’s most infamous pieces and one of my all-time favourite songs: ‘Telephone And Rubber Band’, built upon a tape loop made by Simon Jeffes of a dialling tone and an engaged tone at the same time. That tape loop acts as the bed for the instrumentalists to blanket upon, with emulations of the dialling tone and an almost dub-like rhythm towards the end taking hold of the piece.
The lighting darkens down as we enter a cover of electronic duo Simian Mobile Disco’s ‘Wheels Within Wheels’, a rendition that appears on Penguin Cafe’s 2017 album ‘The Imperfect Sea’. Arthur muffles his piano strings by hand to create a mellow and quiet atmosphere for Darren’s balafon and Andy’s low bowed bass to build upon. The track has an infectious pulse to it, even if it does remind me of a weird mix between Madonna’s ‘Hung Up’ and the ‘BBC News’ theme…! ‘Rescue’, the final song of the main set, contains a more abstract introduction with a similar prepared piano technique from Arthur and some gracious swells between the group before evolving into a set rhythm. With a pace and swagger similar to the previous track, there are a lot more rhythmic duties between the band, with Darren and Avvon both hybriding their time between percussion and vibe-based instruments.
The second standing ovation of the night sees the band depart, leading to Arthur’s eventual return for the first of three encore tracks, ‘Harry Piers’. Taken from the middle names of his father, this song was composed as a piece for Simon’s memorial shortly after his death. This song was easily the most poignant moment of the entire night; just from Arthur’s piano alone, you could see and hear the visions of the Orchestra, led by Simon, in full exotic glory.
The rest of the band make their way back on for the final two tracks, the first of which is a song that admittedly I never returned to often when revisiting the Cafe’s music, ‘Swing The Cat’. However, watching the band perform it here has given my insight a new light! With Arthur’s instrumental duties allocated to the cuatro, those bluegrass vibes of ‘In The Back Of A Taxi’ are back with a vengeance, with the most extravagant arrangement on display between the quartet. With every repetition of the song’s main passage, the tempo kicks in faster… and faster… and faster, with a final swarm of propulsion winning the crowd over yet again!
And finally, the Penguin Cafe classic to end all classics, ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’, interpolated in all manner of covers and movies, is a monumental ending to a beautiful night! The titular harmonium melody leads the way in a glorious fashion, backed by syncopated drum rhythms and even some clapping from the audience! As the band reach a majestic crescendo, the final standing ovation from the crowd is laid upon Arthur’s Cafe with one last thank you before their departure! Of course, I had to thank Arthur for a wonderful night, to which he recognized me from the Resident show… my life is now complete!
Arthur Jeffes – piano, ukulele
Avvon Chambers – percussion, ukulele, glockenspiel
Andy Waterworth – double bass
Rebecca Waterworth – cello
Clementine Brown – violin, shaker
Oli Langford – violin
Darren Berry – viola, cuatro, harmonium, balafon
Penguin Cafe setlist:
Set One – ‘Rain Before Seven’:
‘Welcome To London’
‘Temporary Shelter From The Storm’
‘In Re Budd’
‘Might Be Something’
‘No One Really Leaves…’
‘Find Your Feet’
Set Two – Penguin Cafe classics:
‘Air à Danser’
‘In The Back Of A Taxi’
‘Telephone And Rubber Band’
‘Wheels Within Wheels’ (Simian Mobile Disco cover)
‘Swing The Cat’
‘Music For A Found Harmonium’