Written for Epigram
Penguin Café headlined Bristol’s Colston Hall as part of an event celebrating the tenth anniversary of their label, Erased Tapes. As a label, Erased Tapes champions the avant-garde, and no band could better represent their ethos than Penguin Café.
The band is a collective of musicians with different musical backgrounds, including members of Razorlight, Gorillaz and Suede. Penguin Café is a continuation of the legacy of Simon Jeffes’ Penguin Café Orchestra, who released records from the early seventies until 1997 when he tragically passed away.
Today’s Penguin Café is the brainchild of Simon Jeffes’ son, Arthur Jeffes; they perform his father’s work, as well as their own new material. Although they’ve dropped the ‘Orchestra’ from their moniker, they’ve lost none of the magic that made the original group so special.
The set begins with the brilliantly hypnotic ‘Telephone and Rubber Band’, one of Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s best-known tracks. Even those who have never listened to one of the band’s records would probably recognise this song, and ‘Perpetuum Mobile’, which features later in the set, as both have been used frequently in television, film and advertisements. Whilst the all-seated venue and the nature of the event means the audience is tamer than at other gigs, their reaction to these tracks, and throughout the evening, is far from subdued.
One standout moment of the set is the intensely moving ‘Ricercar’, opening track to Penguin Café’s third LP, The Imperfect Sea. More than half of this album, released earlier this year, features in tonight’s set. This new material, like their previous two albums, provides affirmation that Arthur Jeffes and Penguin Café are so much more than just a cover band; they strike a perfect balance between celebrating Simon Jeffes’ work and doing something new.
‘Rescue’, from the same album, is introduced by Jeffes as ‘the soundtrack to an animated film we haven’t made yet, about a guy who falls down into a lot of quicksand and starts to sink. But at the very last minute, he’s pulled out and saved by a very nice girl so the tune becomes a lot happier’.
On paper, a band that mixes harmonium, cello, ukulele and cuatro among other instruments sounds esoteric, but their music is in fact remarkably accessible, and the story of ‘Rescue’ comes across very well. Indeed, the very concept of Penguin Café could seem slightly quixotic, but tonight’s gig proves that the band works wonderfully.