Seated, I jostled for elbow room among a melting pot of Liverpool’s finest. At least three generations had gathered under the vaulted ceiling of the Epstein Theatre; grandparents with children, teenage lovers and of course a bunch of grizzled blokes from down the boozer.
The Penguin Cafe is a band whose music has slipped into our everyday life, yet somehow the Cafe themselves have not made themselves a household name, instead they hold a position closer to the mantlepiece, above a roaring fire with all the trimmings. Certainly Penguin Cafe are a band who come with all the trimmings, with over ten members onstage and instruments galore, to facilitate the gratuitous and self indulgent instrument swapping that invariably happened between each song. I use “song” with some hesitance, as never have I experienced musicians who invest so much in their music. Each individual performance was distinct and special in its own right, given a touching introduction by Arthur Jeffes, frontman and founder of this unique experiment in auditory interaction.
Arthur’s father, Simon Jeffes, established The Penguin Cafe Orchestra way back in 1972 and took his classical training to another level of success, his compositions now known worldwide and featured in all fields of entertainment media. Sadly The Orchestra died with its founder in 1997, and yet Jeffes’ spirit still imbibes his music with life and soul and vigour.
Penguin Cafe as it currently stands is a kind of reincarnation, Arthur taking up his father’s mantle, breathing life into music by making it his own. Building an effortless repertoire with the packed auditorium, then performing blistering violin led pieces such as “String The Cat” with an ease in energy I have only heard tell of.
The nature of the band (which contains none of the original members) is such that the very act of playing allows the music they make to transcend performance in the most unbelievable way. I felt incorporated into the act, onstage they played to me as they did to themselves, establishing a casual brilliance that would forgive any mistake, and yet none came. The mix of old music (composed by Jeffes’ late father) and fresh material (from the recently released album The Red Book) was breathed into life by the entire ensemble, yet they refrain from calling themselves an orchestra out of respect, though the name suits. Arthur Jeffes does not do “covers” of his father’s work. The whole Cafe comes together to reinvent, ‘tweaking’ songs as and when the moment needs in order to truly own their music and serve it without pretension or pomp to whomever chooses to tune in. The eclectic mindset of the Cafe themselves is reflected in their dress, a mix of two piece tuxedos, boho chic, indie grunge and Victorian chimney sweep all in uneven measure.
Support from Tom Baxter was fitting, as he, good friends with the Cafe, knew how to warm the crowd for the act to come. He did not wow, as Tom was modest, honest and thoroughly enjoyable to watch perform in all.
The overwhelming and slightly manic outward appearance of some in the Cafe is balanced by an equally overwhelming calm relaxation in others. Though that description does not speak for the Cafe as a whole, each lends their character to a band which overall makes for a contained burst of absolute vibrancy that is as much a visual experience as it is sonic; after a packed hour, only the Penguin Cafe could end on a Riverdance. It was the most spectacular Riverdance I have ever heard. I usually end my reviews with a “big up”, but that seems so inappropriate for artists that allowed me into their soul. Instead, I say Thank You, Penguin Cafe, roll on and ever upwards