Review: Penguin Cafe/ Portico Quartet

Penguin Cafe/ Portico Quartet
(Barbican Hall, February 9th 2011, Review by Jack Lowe, photo below by Roger Thomas)

A packed Barbican Hall went gleefully wild for Penguin Cafe from the very first number, featuring Neil Codling on a pair of penny whistles. But it wasn’t until the slightly later, in ‘Swing The Cat’ that the energy on stage and the tempo of the gig really picked up and brought the power and scale of the music, as well as Arthur Jeffes’ bandleading skills to the fore.

Jeffes prefers slightly fuller chord progressions than his late father who founded Penguin Cafe Orchestra in the early 70’s. ‘Landau’ grabbed the attention completely with a repetitive heart-beat like rhythm, juxtaposed against an elongated melody from the strings . There was a wonderful sense of travel akin to Reich’s ‘Different Trains.’ In this piece I certainly got the sense of having to ‘listen back’ to fully appreciate the grand design of a superbly simple piece of musical architecture.

Anoher moment to remember was when Jeffes switched back and forth between playing the Steinway and tapping a strip of reinforced glass. A later piece for ukulele quartet gave a lesson in the effective gradation of dynamics. Classic Penguin Cafe Orchestra tunes such as ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’ were given a fresh reboot. By the end of the night half the audience were up on ther feet to give an ovation.

The first half, from Portico Quartet, also took time to settle in. Jack Mulvie opened the show with a plangent sax tone reminiscent of ‘An Englishman in New York,‘ but there was more twenty-first century technological wizardry than eighties cheese in their performance. With three quarters of the band wielding effects pedals as well as their instruments, they laid out an impressive palette of sounds.

Some commentators complain about the harmonic limitations of the hang drums. In Portico’s case it isn’t a constraint – the band compensates by continually creating diverse contrasts in dynamics and timbre, often in wave like forms, and particularly so in their third number where the drummer (Duncan Bellamy) laid down a jarring, gameboy-esque melody on glockenspiel (featuring live reversal techniques) before the band opened up a wonderful progressive movement over of it.

The band is fastened down by it’s solid rhythm section. The beautifully diverse bass playing from Milo Fitzpatrick coupled with Bellamy’s knack for hiding the end of phrases creates a phase effect amplified by the hang drum’s rich sound and Nick Mulvey’ s ability to soak them between the other instruments. I’d have liked Wyllie to have faced out towards the audience more, to build more involvement, but his lines had a smooth and winding quality: by the last two pieces I was being captivated by the band’s ability to create moments of astonishing beauty.

This was a nicely contrasted programme which sent a large crowd away very happy.

Categories: miscellaneous

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