Our first December weekend in Bristol also brought the first weekend of the Bristol Beacon being back open to the public in 5 years. Having closed its doors in 2018 for a £48 million refurb (which ultimately ballooned to a massive £132 million spend), the Sunday night of its opening weekend saw Penguin Cafe perform.
The venue felt extremely fresh, the linger of paint was still in the air. The dynamics of Penguin Cafe suited the atmosphere of the 1,800-seater auditorium well – Penguin Cafe are a group equipped with more traditional instruments, and combine elements of folk, classical music and minimalism to form a uniquely distinctive style. The group was established by Arthur Jeffes as a continuation of his father’s project, Penguin Cafe Orchestra (PCO), and throughout the evening, a connection to PCO roots felt very present. As Jeffes and his 6 other band members took to the stage he explained to the audience what to expect from the evening, “We’re going to play our new album in full, take a short break, then come back and play some of my favourite tunes of my dad’s”.
From the first track played, ‘Welcome To London’, the buoyancy of Penguin Cafe’s music filled the room. Piano, Xylophone, Contrabass, and strings combined and swelled; Violins were played both with bows and by gently plucking the strings. This upbeat, albeit rather easy-going, mood of the music continued throughout most of this first set. Some experimentation with instruments was cited for the track ‘Goldfinch Yodel’, where Jeffes played his piano in a way to mimic the call of a Goldfinch bird. This track is part of a 172-track compilation For the Birds: The Birdsong Project, which Jeffes did not fail to mention recently received a Grammy nomination.
A personal highlight was the track ‘Second Variety’, which slowed things down slightly to a more reflective pace and embraced the more ambient qualities of the group. Through giving more space to each individual instrument and player, I felt quality in performance and composition shone through, although this may have been personal preference to ambient music.
As was explained later by Jeffes, this was the last stop on Penguin Cafes tour “… so it’s probably the best these songs are going to sound”. The group indeed sounded very tight, while concurrently looking very relaxed to the eye. Arthur Jeffes would continually address the audience between each track, explaining the meaning behind track titles, introducing the band, and more. This maintained a rather candid sense to the proceedings.
After a short break, the band returned to stage donning penguin masks, playing the jolly ukulele tune ‘Paul’s Dance’. The band posed comically and played, and once Jeffes took his mask off, I could see real enjoyment at his recital of his father’s works. The audience were noticeably more receptive to the tracks in the second set too. Cheers erupted as the band began to play recognised PCO tracks, such as ‘Air À Danser’ and ‘Telephone and Rubber Band’. These tracked when played live retained the energy of their original recordings, really driving home the close proximity between Penguin Cafe and PCO.
There was a moving encore to the night’s proceedings, where Jeffes returned to stage, solo initially to perform the track, ‘Harry Piers’. The song, a solo piano piece, was written for and performed at Jeffes’ father’s memorial service. Moments of tumbling piano in the song felt innately Penguin Cafe (Orchestra). It seemed equal parts homage and natural for Jeffes to play this way, and made me muse on how great a degree he carried his father’s sensibilities in the fabric of his being. It, as well as the wider performance, certainly blurred the lines between the two groups, which I think came to the benefit and enjoyment of both the members of Penguin Cafe and the audience of the Bristol Beacon.