A few weeks ago I was invited to the press launch of Kino, the cool new wine bar/restaurant in the Howard Assembly Room building, so when I saw Penguin Cafe I thought that they were now catering for uncool people like myself who just wanted a pot of builders’ tea and a chocolate biscuit. Not so! Penguin Cafe is a group of musicians who seem to have passed under my radar but are now firmly bleeping away in the middle of it.
I wanted to post this piece yesterday but was a little slow with my pen to note the names of the members so needed to do some research. Sadly I could find nowhere on their website or anywhere else on the internet which was a definitive list of those performing on Thursday. My search, however, led me down several rabbit holes which meant that I spent a lot of time listening to their music instead of getting the writing done, an obvious sign that I thoroughly enjoyed the performance.
Let me get the name out of the way first. The band was formed in the early 1970s when Simon Jeffes had a dose of food poisoning in the South of France and, during the bout of fever this caused, had a dream of a dystopian world where the only respite from being an automaton in a soulless world was an old building where people could be themselves and have fun. It was called The Penguin Cafe. He decided that he would form a group and compose music which he thought would be of the kind played in this establishment. It was called the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Sadly, Simon Jeffes died much too young in 1997 and so his son, Arthur carried on the good work and the ensemble was renamed the Penguin Cafe. May I take the liberty of directing you to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41HBZ3QqvhE where you can see the Penguin Cafe Orchestra performing on Whistle Test.
Anyway, back to the present. The band performed as a sextet with Arthur Jeffes on piano; Andy Waterworth, bass; Rebecca Waterworth – whose birthday it was – cello; and Oliver Langford, violin. My apologies to the lady and gentleman unnamed.
The first piece was in reflective mood, which was fitting given that we had just been through, the now sadly familiar, silence and playing of the National Anthem, this time with several people choosing to remain seated.
As entertaining as the music itself, were the inter-tune narratives from Mr Jeffes. In his introduction to the second piece, Chapter, he said it was about a penguin detective. I’ll have whatever he’s drinking! Although I have not seen the band perform before, it became obvious as the evening wore on that the pieces written by him were of a different construction to the ones penned by his father. The former’s being less concentrated on featured soloists with each musician playing their own harmony part contributing to the whole. Jeffes Snr’s works had one instrument taking the lead with others following. The mixture made for a superbly varied programme. Chapter, for instance, began with a piano part which I found reminiscent of Tubular Bells with each of the members chiming in – sorry – to add their contribution making the whole thing work.
As well as the seemingly differing approach to composition, Simon had a much more individual style when it came to naming works. The good thing about instrumentals, which is what every piece was, is that you don’t have to incorporate the title into the lyrics. A shame really as I would have loved to have heard how he would have come up with a line ‘The Sound of Someone You Love Going Away and It Doesn’t Matter.’
The drummer doubled on the harmonium for a couple of works and did something I have never seen a drummer do before, play the melodica whilst keeping the beat on the bass drum. Who said that men can’t multitask. There was also the Penguin Cafe’s version of Drum’n’Bass but with tabla and acoustic double bass, which was superb.
Something else I hadn’t seen before was industrial glass as a musical instrument. Arthur Jeffes said that they had found a piece of industrial glass in their studio – as you do – and decided to record the sound of it smashing. As it was industrial strength the result of the contest was a win for the glass, so someone decided to suspend it and attach a microphone to see what sound it makes when struck with the hand. If you want to know, go see the band!
Other sounds he produced were those of a kora, on the piano, and he also kept putting his hand into the body of the instrument to dampen the strings far more than the pedal would do. I had a vision of Howard Assembly Room’s piano tuner looking on and cancelling all his appointments for Friday.
Penguin Cafe have recently released a remastered version of their first album and Arthur Jeffes has been working with Greenpeace on a project about – you guessed it – penguins. He was inspired to do this when he saw a film of some penguins stranded on a small ice floe watching a huge factory ship pass by destroying their habitat. The resultant film included the piece At The Top Of The Hill, with aforementioned melodica.
I don’t think that I have ever been to a concert where the performers smiled so much, it was great to see that they loved what they were doing as much as we enjoyed watching and listening.
All good things must come to an end, and this concert did so in rather an abrupt manner. When the clapping and cheering subsided, and before all the band could get back on stage for their encore, the fire alarm sounded and we all filed out into the street. I am assuming that it was the real fire alarm and not some experimental musical instrument to add to the collection.
Joking aside, I must congratulate the Fire Brigade, whose engine was at the theatre even as we were still evacuating the building. Thank you.
Should you find yourself in Gateshead, Canterbury or even Tambon Pong, Thailand, as well as any of the other places on their tour, why not grab a ticket. Go to https://www.penguincafe.com/more where you can find out more about the band and make a booking. When you have watched the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra on Whistle Test you might like to have a look at the current line up on one of the other clips. You’re welcome!
For details of what is coming to Howard Assembly Room please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/event-tag/har/
Feature image from Howard Assembly Room. All photographs by Stan Graham