Penguin Café

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Review Date October 7, 2011

Review By Nick Dalton

Location East Wintergarden, Canary Wharf, London

Just around the corner in the heart of Canary Wharf, the Friday evening throng is in full session, thousands of office workers loudly spilling out of bars, drinks in hand. We’re in a curious but pleasing glass-roofed space snuggled between office buildings, a haven of peace and civility, as a group of 10 disparate individuals wander on to the stage. They break into what could be described as rootsy classical music, a glorious 90-minute set of riffs and soaring violin, grand piano and ukulele. It’s the first of another series of left-of-centre performances sneaking into the city workplace (another is a semi-acoustic show by melodious indie-rockers British Sea Power). Penguin Café are the child of the Penguin Café Orchestra, the dreamy, elegantly different ensemble led by Simon Jeffes until his death more than a decade ago, a group that was home to everyone from classical moonlighters to country fiddle virtuoso Bob Loveday. This version is led by Jeffes Junior, Arthur, a superb pianist, keeping alive his father’s legacy, while adding to it. Bearded and waistcoated he looks like the male lead from a Thomas Hardy movie adaptation; the chap who darts between percussion and violin wears a white cap and plus-fours, there are longhairs and short hairs and mop hairs the classic mix of classical players (a cellist who looks exactly like a cellist should, otherwordly, her long, dark hair tied back) and rock types. The music kicks off with Dirt, one of the original group’s numbers, a joyous southern states Americana romp based around violin, viola, lap steel and ukulele (or something that looked like a ukulele but was a bit bigger). People chop and change as they swing through what is essentially quiet music but which acquires a lot of power when played at volume: Swing The Cat (an erudite take on Irish jigging), the pastoral sweep of Air a Danser, the medieval tinge of Paul’s Dance (Jeffes leading a four-piece ukulele ensemble) and the resonant Music For A Found Harmonium. Newer pieces such as From A Blue Temple (from the recent album A MATTER OF LIFE …) sat perfectly alongside favourites including Perpetuum Mobile. A highpoint was Telephone And Rubber Band, a tune constructed over a tape loop of telephone ringing and engaged tones, the noises played by Jeffes from his iPhone, before the exquisite Giles Farnaby’s Dream, finishing with another US-inflected composition, Bean Fields. There was the air of classical music but played with the sound and rhythm of a barnyard dance in an evening of irrepressible good humour, Jeffes beaming as he performed the music he’d grown up loving. The encore featured a piano piece he’d composed for his father’s memorial service, then the lively Salty Bean Fumble. We then left our tables at the Penguin Café and emerged into the noise of the night.

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