February 16, 2014 10:26 pm

Penguin Café, Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton – review

The eclectic orchestra mixed musical styles to humorous and otherwordly effect

Penguin leader Arthur Jeffes

Penguin Café and the Penguin Café Orchestra share a name, an origin story, a songbook and some DNA, but no actual personnel. The Orchestra was founded by Simon Jeffes – after a fever dream brought on by food poisoning – to explore the intersection between folk, world, jazz and light classical music. When he died, his son Arthur inherited the proprietorship and recruited a new generation to continue the Orchestra’s governing philosophy and play both the original music and new pieces in the same style.

After two albums, the Next Generation Penguins are as big a draw as their forebears, and deftly weave together old music and new. Jeffes describes Penguin Café as a “reboot”. Perhaps a better analogy would be with the old and new versions of Doctor Who: both are utterly English, but the 1970s incarnation was lower-budget, quirkier, sillier and more innocent; the current model slicker and safer, and something to which older fans happily bring their children.

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The theatrical puppet company Handspring hold to the principle that “every object has the right to life”. Similarly, Jeffes senior believed that every instrument and possibly every object contains at least one song. The new band walked on stage to the sound of a crossed line (a dial tone in G and a busy signal in A), the opening motif of “Telephone and Rubber Band”, into which they launched to universal recognition and delight. Waistcoated and jacketed, they looked like the house band of the Bloomsbury group, down to Darren Berry’s tartan three-piece suit and Oli Langford’s Byronic haircut.

The music was full of sly jokes. “Radio Bemba” started with a percussive flurry straight out of Lalo Schifrin’s Mission Impossible theme; “Swing the Cat”, with all the fiddlers sawing away at top speed, jumped up exponentially through tempos. Like the originals, the newer compositions at their best explored a conceit and worked it through: “1420”, composed while Arthur Jeffes was working with Nasa on music to be beamed to nearby exoplanets, took a four-note theme (a nod, perhaps, to the musical welcome from Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and repeated it at different speeds on each instrument, for a phasing effect.

Even the most familiar of the old songs was rounded out by a full band of 11 – “Perpetuum Mobile”, with a string quintet and two melodica players who read sheet music while breathing through plastic tubes, sounded positively orchestral. Amid all the players, some of the detail got lost: Neil Codling’s thumb piano was visibly deployed but inaudible, even in the Turner Sims’ concert hall acoustic. But if any aliens were listening, Earth would have sounded like a good place to visit.




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