Penguin Cafe,Portico Quartet Live Review @ Barbican (City of London) - 09 Feb 2011
Music can do many things - it can delight you 'til your nape-hairs stand erect, it can frustrate you like an argumentative relation or it can transform you to another world, away from the hullabaloo of everyday life. Tonight, both bands on the bill at the quirky Barbican Theatre, managed to provide the first and last emotions with suitable aplomb. I cannot imagine either ever doing the middle option.
Acclaimed nu-jazz and atmospheric-electronica Londoners Portico Quartet sounded spot-on and hard to believe that they were in a supporting role, such was their positive effect on the largely sold-out auditorium. Having nearly scooped a Mercury Music Prize award for the resplendent debut album, "Knee-Deep In The North Sea", as well as gathering acclaim and creative impetus with the follow-up "Isla" in 2009, it seemed to make sense to dust it off and give it to esteemed producer John Leckie to hone and tune it into crystal-clear submission.
Strangely, much of tonight's short set from the foursome came from the superior "Isla" - "Paper Scissors Stone", "Clipper" and "Long Line" were triumphant examples of just how jazz can sound unlike jazz when mixed with spatial electronics and the barest of dub-effects. Plus those rather fancy hang-drums, sounding like a cross between marimbas and steel-pans (but softer), also add a calming and rhythmic undulation to each piece. Irritatingly, and typically for London, a few dullards in the audience decided this wasn't for them and sought sanctuary outside - personally, they could have played a bit longer, such was the sweetness that oozed from their pretty melodies.
After the interlude, main attraction Penguin Cafe (minus the Orchestra suffix but seemingly larger in numbers) took to the stage donning fetching hats in a variety of styles that seemed to represent the origins of the music being strummed, plucked and coaxed from the array of ukuleles, shakers, piano and brass on stage. Young Arthur Jeffes mentions his late father Simon, little and often and so he should - he composed and co-composed a considerable legacy, much of it lovingly restored tonight, though not without the odd acceptable wobble.
"Dirt", from the superior later album "Signs Of Life", kicked off proceedings with a gradual swelling of rhythm and minimalism until those Cajun-style fiddles started to grind out the familiar refrain. In fact, the same album was heavily represented throughout with renditions of "Perpetuum Mobile", "Swing The Cat" and the set-closing triumph of "Beanfields" .
Also well received by the attentive audience were selections from the earlier albums, including "From The Colonies", "Giles Farnaby's Dream" from the 1976 debut and the highpoints from the second self-titled collection, featuring the breezy "Air a Danser", "Paul's Dance" and the familiar "Telephone and Rubber Band", complete with i-Pod-driven analogue BT ringtone.
New tracks from the 2011 album, "A Matter Of Life", sit comfortably among the oldies - "Pale Peach Jukebox" and "That, Not That" are classics in the making and I will stick my neck out and say that the new material is the equal of the key quartet of PCO albums - well done Arthur and co.
The encore is painfully short - a piano-led epitaph played at Jeffes' funeral, "Harry Piers", leads the way plaintively and delicately towards the curious closing choice of "Salty Bean Fumble" from that second album.
Tonight was a grander environment for my second Penguin Cafe concert - I first saw them in a tiny town hall in Liskeard some 20-odd years ago when Simon Jeffes led his smaller band of charges out onto a stage, in front of an unexpected partisan crowd in deepest East Cornwall.
Tonight, his son did the same in the capital city and, apart from the prick in my row who insisted on taking pee/pint breaks during their set (knob), his raggle-taggle musicians satisfied just about everybody sitting around me.
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