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Portico Quartet/Penguin Cafe

Portico Quartet/Penguin Cafe, Warwick Arts Centre, 11/02/2011

by Ian Mann

February 15, 2011


Arthur Jeffes likes to describe himself as the new proprietor of the much loved Penguin Café. On tonight's evidence the franchise is in good hands and is set to run for a good while yet.

Portico Quartet/Penguin Café

Warwick Arts Centre,11/02/2011

In a review of a Portico Quartet live show on their now legendary Somerset village halls tour in 2009 I used the phrase “sometimes they remind me of a modern successor to Simon Jeffes’ Penguin Café Orchestra”. Maybe someone else thought so too, fast forward a couple of years and here are the two bands sharing the bill on an extensive UK tour promoted by the Serious organisation.

There are certainly similarities between the two bands, a love of exotic instrumentation (Portico’s hang drums, Penguin Café‘s cuatros and ukeleles) and world music styles somehow combining with a quintessential Englishness.

During my prog rock youth composer Simon Jeffes and his Penguin Café Orchestra were somewhat marginal figures with their folk and classical influences and world music instrumentation. I don’t remember them selling particularly well in the 70’s but throughout the 80’s and 90’s a cult began to grow with the PCO becoming a much loved institution. The death of Simon Jeffes from a brain tumour in 1997 seemed to mark the end but the affection with which Jeffes and the PCO had come to be regarded led to a number of 21st century tributes and revivals by the massed ranks of former PCO members.

This current revival of Jeffes’ unique and visionary ideas is something else again. It’s headed by Jeffes’ son Arthur who grew up surrounded by the music of the Penguin Café Orchestra and is clearly his father’s biggest fan. However Jeffes Jr. has distanced himself from his father’s legacy by recruiting an entirely new band of his own choosing rather than selecting from the ranks of former PCO personnel. More radically this band, under the truncated name Penguin Café have also recorded “A Matter of Life”, an album of completely new music written by Arthur. It marks the first genuinely new material to be released under the Penguin Café name for many years and although very much in the spirit of his father’s group Arthur Jeffes manages to bring something of himself to the music. “A Matter of Life” is a pretty decent offering, better than many people had expected I’m sure. 

The large and loyal PCO fan base certainly seemed more than ready to give Arthur the benefit of the doubt. A hugely successful sell out concert at The Barbican was followed by another capacity crowd at Warwick with the faithful more than satisfied with the evening’s events.

It’s been a while since I last attended a concert in the main (Butterworth) hall at Warwick. I’d forgotten what an excellent auditorium it is with both groups benefiting from the superb acoustics. The stage looked like a musical instrument shop when I first entered with the Penguins’ panoply of exotic instruments already set out behind just the Portico’s rather leaner set up.

The then ridiculously young Portico Quartet seemed to emerge pretty much fully formed in 2007 with their extraordinary début recording “Knee- Deep In The North Sea” , which went on to be nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. For many people it was a first introduction to the sound of the hang, a Swiss designed 21st century percussion instrument that resembles two woks glued together and which produces a mellifluous sound somewhere between that of a West Indian steel pan and an Indonesian gamelan. The distinctive sound of the hang, an instrument that manages to combine both melodic and rhythmic qualities, helped to give the young group a strong individual identity from the start. Of course the fact that the first album was packed with strong hooks and melodies also helped as did the group’s highly personable live appearances, their skills honed from years of busking outside the South Bank Centre and beyond.

“Knee-Deep” appeared on Oliver Weindling’s Babel label but in the wake of the group’s success they upped sticks and moved to Peter Gabriel’s Real World imprint. I felt a bit sorry for Ollie, who had done a lot for them, but this young band are clearly highly ambitious. The move to Real World saw them working with the great rock producer John Leckie, best known perhaps for his extraordinary production work on the first Stone Roses album. Under Leckie the PQ’s follow up album “Isla” saw the group adopt a darker, more improvisatory direction as they simultaneously began to experiment with elements of electronica. “Isla” is certainly a more challenging record than “Knee-Deep but ultimately a more rewarding one. Most listeners seemed to agree as PQ not only held on to their fan base but also began to win over those critics who had dismissed “Knee-Deep” as being rather lightweight. 

The growing fascination with loops and electronica began to manifest itself in the group’s live appearances. At first only saxophonist Jack Wyllie used electronics on stage but double bassist Milo Fitzpatrick and drummer Duncan Bellamy have now equipped themselves with pedal boards, consoles and looping devices. Only hang specialist Nick Mulvey remains aloof, seated behind a flight of three differently tuned hanged drums.

It’s the group’s growing fascination with loops and interlocking rhythms and melody lines that has spawned the recent comparisons with the music of composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
Tonight’s set which incorporated more electronics than I’ve ever seen the band deploy before certainly endorsed those comparisons with most of the material being drawn from the “Isla” album despite the fact that the band have recently released a “deluxe” edition of “Knee-Deep” with some judicious sonic tweaking by Leckie plus some previously unreleased live material. I hope to take a look at this on the site in due course.

A packed Warwick Arts Centre may be a far cry from East Quantoxhead Village Hall but there was no compromise in Portico’s approach. Wyllie, on curved soprano immediately set up a looped phrase, improvising above it to the accompaniment of Bellamy’s brushes and Mulvey’s hang drums, played variously by hand or with soft head mallets. Bellamy also played phrases on a glockenspiel, subsequently treating the sound to produce a forest of twinkling electronics.

Some of their music was trance like, straight out of the Reich/Glass school, but “Clipper”, though based round a highly melodic motif mutated into an angry squall of almost free playing as Wyllie’s saxophone battled with Bellamy’s barrage of drums and electronics. The pair offered an even more dramatic example of this on the closing “Dawn Patrol” which drew a great reception from the crowd despite the uncompromising nature of much of the playing.

Mulvey’s hang drums are still an integral part of the group sound and as the announcer of the tunes he still appears to be the unofficial leader but these days PQ seem more than ever to be a band of equals with an increasingly restless improvisatory spirit. Wyllie’s playing on tenor, and particularly soprano, has taken on a harder edge, often showing the influence of Middle Eastern music. Fitzpatrick remains a monster bass player, both with or without the bow, and Bellamy is a flexible intelligent drummer who seems to be becoming increasingly interested in sound treatment. He used to double on hang alongside Mulvey but as the hang becomes less and less of a novelty and the group sound less reliant upon it so Portico Quartet seem to be even more of a band.

This tour has been good for them, playing to packed houses that are likely to be sympathetic to their methodology must have won them many new fans. They certainly did brisk business at the CD stall during the break. The only downside was a certain tentativeness about playing in such a large hall, Mulvey was noticeably more reticent between tunes than I’ve seen him before and Wyllie has attracted some criticism for standing side on to the audience. However I’d say that was to allow him to communicate more easily with his colleagues, something I’d happily support. Every time I see them PQ are subtly different. Their next album of new material will be awaited with interest.

After a short intermission Penguin Café took to the stage. There was nothing reticent about Arthur Jeffes who proved to be an entertaining, erudite and witty guide to his and his father’s music. Eccentrically dressed in a variety of colourful clothes and hats Penguin Café proved to be a well drilled ensemble, striking a good balance between disciplined and highly able musicianship and an element of unabashed showmanship.

The opening number “Dirt” saw multi instrumentalist Neil Codling (keyboard player with the rock group Suede) playing steel guitar in a manner reminiscent of the jazz cum Americana of Bill Frisell. Later in the piece he was seen playing a pair of penny whistles simultaneously as the music took a folky turn. This juxtaposition of styles is typical of Penguin Café. Jeffes senior used to refer to his group’s output as “invented folk music”.

Penguin Café‘s approach is very different to Portico Quartet’s in that there is little or no room for improvisation. Yet the innate tunefulness of both groups ensures that both are capable of appealing to the same audience. “From The Colonies” was next featuring the cello of Rebecca Waterworth and the violin of Darren Berry.

Penguin Café tunes are brief and functional and tend to do what they say on the tin. “Swing The Cat” was the first of a number of riotous hoedowns peppering the set.

Following his father’s tune “In The Back Of A Taxi” Arthur introduced a number of his own pieces, “That Not That” and the African sounding “The Fox And The Leopard”. The latter was an updating of Simon’s tune “Paul’s Dance” which was to be heard later in the set. Arthur had added rhythms from Sierra Leone to the piece, the African feel enhanced by the sound of Codling’s hi life guitar stylings.

Arthur writes in a similar style to Simon and his pieces are worthy successors to his father’s legacy.  Next up was “Landau” from the “A Matter Of Life…” album. It’s a strong tune and the recorded version features the Northumbrian pipes of Kathryn Tickell, sadly not present here. However Arthur moved to the harmonium to capture something of the spirit of Tickell’s contribution. It was a move that signalled a sequence of his father’s best known tunes, among them “Air A Danser”, given a tango feel, the faux naive"Paul’s Dance” played on three ukuleles, and of course “Music For A Found Harmonium”. Naturally Arthur told the tale of how Simon had found the instrument abandoned on the street of Kyoto all those years ago and explained how the famous melody had been appropriated by Irish folk bands who now commonly passed it off as being “traditional”.

Back to Arthur’s own music for “From A Blue Temple”, a tune based on the Fibonacci number sequence and incorporating massed strings and the eerie reverberations of a large suspended piece of toughened glass.

“Perpetuum Mobile” incorporated the sounds of pizzicato strings and the Venezuelan folk instrument the cuatro before the ensemble finished with the effervescent “Beanfields”, one of Jeffes Senior’s best known pieces.

The inevitable encores began with “Harry Piers”, a solo piano piece played by Arthur Jeffes and written by him for the occasion of his father’s memorial service in 1998. This rare piece of solemnity was good palette cleanser before two more of Simon’s most famous pieces.

“Telephone And Rubber Band” is perhaps the best known PCO track of all with Arthur looping the famous ring tone/engagement tone from his mobile in a witty touch. The pattern was then picked up by Andy Waterworth on double bass before the rest of the ensemble joined in.

A rollicking “Giles Farnaby’s Dream” combined an early English melody with Venezuelan and Yoruba rhythms and led to the band being called back a second time, which I suspect was probably unscheduled. They finally closed the evening with “Salty Bean Fumble” with Arthur Jeffes playing double whistles.

Penguin Café tunes are often disarmingly simple yet simultaneously full of clever ideas. They’re easy for audiences to relate to yet notoriously tricky to play. The first rate band doing justice to the music of Simon and Arthur was Arthur Jeffes (piano, harmonium, ukulele and whistles), Neil Codling(guitars,cuatro,piano, harmonium,ukulele and whistles), Andy Waterworth (double bass), Rebecca Waterworth (cello), Darren Berry (violin), Vince Greene (viola), Kath Mann (ukulele and violin) and twin percussionists Cass Browne and Pete Radcliffe who produced an astonishing variety of sounds on percussive devices from all over the globe. Sorry if I’ve missed anyone out-there were so many of them and a lot of moving around and instrument swappage.

Arthur Jeffes likes to describe himself as the new proprietor of the much loved Penguin Café. On the evidence of the “A Matter Of Life..” album plus tonight’s highly enjoyable live performance I’d say that the franchise is in good hands and is going to be running for quite a while yet.



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