Recent Listening: Penguin Cafe, The Imperfect Sea.


Not to be confused with The Penguin Cafe Orchestra that disbanded upon the untimely death of its leader Simon Jeffes in 2007, the Penguin Cafe is actually a different band, although it includes some of the previous members and is led by Simon Jeffes’ son, Arthur.

Live, The Penguin Cafe play many of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s favourite pieces and it has been my privilege to enjoy them live twice (Usher Hall, Edinburgh and Glastonbury) but they record in their own right and The Imperfect Sea is their third, and best, album.

I read that Arthur was concerned that this latest recording was taking them to new places and ran the risk of disaffecting long term PCO fans.  I can reassure you Arthur that you have done no such thing.

It’s a bobbydazzler.  It really is.

It’s far from imperfect.

The sound, as my good friend and long term PCO aficionado, Jon Stevenson, said to me the other day lacks some of the humour of the PCO and he is right. The Penguin Cafe are a more serious bunch of musicians and their output is perhaps more orchestral than the PCO which was more folky in totality, but this matters not a jot when the quality is so high.

I’ve listened to The Imperfect Sea 5 or 6 times in the last few days and there is nary an off note.  Sure, the first time I listened I was riding my bike and the constant ‘ping’ of cycle bell on Cantorum was a mite discombobulating, but it’s endearing also and hearkens back towards the PCO’s playfulness.  (It has a small debt to pay to the mighty Telephone and Rubber Band).

Ricecar, the opener, is a classic of sequenced music and is certainly of the PCO school.

Overall this is a mighty addition to the PC/PCO canon.

Penguin Cafe. A deep appreciation.


On Sunday afternoon my good friend Jon Stevenson was round at the house and I asked him what Penguin Cafe Orchestra track he’d like me to play.  Quick as a flash he replied “Beanfields.”

So I was delighted when Arthur Jeffes announced that the next tune he was about to play at the Penguin Cafe gig at Edinburgh’s Queens Hall last night was the aforementioned Beanfields.

“That’s your favourite Jon.”  I whispered (this was a whispery occasion).

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that” he retorted, almost indignantly.

“Strange.” I thought.   But, on reflection, how can you choose a ‘favourite’ from PCO’s canon of work.


Jon and I, and Jeana, first saw them together sometime around 1988 in Glasgow, not long after I had introduced Jon to the delights of ‘Telephone and Rubber band’.  Sadly we didn’t see them again before founder and composer Simon Jeffes’ death of a brain tumour in 1997.

So, imagine our delight when not only did Simon Jeffes’ son, Arthur, form a new band called Penguin Cafe (a 10 strong ensemble somewhat dwarfing the original 5) but that they were recording AND touring AND playing the old PCO work alongside their own compositions.

Jon and I, frankly, were made up.

As were our wives.

Since their formation in 2009 I have had the privilege of seeing them perform three times (The Usher Hall, Edinburgh, in 2012, Glastonbury, 2013, and last night.)

Each show was astounding in its own right.

The grandeur of The Usher Hall, the casual informality of Glastonbury and the intimacy of the Queens Hall each brought out different aspects of PC and PCO’s uniquely idiosyncratic style.


What really made last night so fantastic though was the chance to meet them afterwards.

So Jeana came home with a thoroughly autographed copy of The Red Book (their new album which includes two NASA commissioned pieces).

We also both had a chance to chat with Violist and MD, Vince Greene and, at length, with violinist Darren Berry; resplendent in his Royal Stuart suit, surely worn specially for the occasion.


I spoke to Arthur Jeffes and complimented him on the much changed rendition Harry Piers which he always dedicates to his dad.

Honestly, this was the best Christmas present Jeana could possibly have asked for because the whole show was truly brilliant with many old PCO favourites including Air a Dancer, Perpetuum Mobile, Telephone and Rubber Band and, of course, Music for a Found Harmonium, but it was perfectly complemented by PC’s own work including the aforementioned Harry Piers, the magnificent Landau and new work including the brilliant NASA commissioned, 1420 and Aurora.

All in all a truly memorable evening.

Thank you Arthur, Vince, Darren, Des, Andy, Rebecca, Neil, Tom, Cass and Pete (with guest appearance from the excellent support, Tom Baxter) .

We love you.

Glastonbury 2013. My verdict.

En famile at Glastonbury 2013.  The bar on William's Green.

En famile at Glastonbury 2013. The bar on William’s Green.

The Glastonbury Festival is the single most visceral experience I’ve ever had.

This year was my second and the best I’ve been to. Not just because a lot of the bands we saw were great (because some of them weren’t – the strength in depth in 2011 was far greater), but because I went with my three, now adult, kids and we had a (mostly) collective experience that I doubt we can ever beat.

For me Glastonbury is about the music, but when the BBC cameras stop rolling at 11.30 each night much, much more goes on and this time I took a lot more of that in (Arcadia and Shangri La in particular).ria and amy at Arcadia

2013 was all about The Rolling Stones (more on them later) and, like others, I can only speculate that, generally speaking, the top of the bills were weaker than previous years as the Stones’ coffers had to be further topped up to get them.  So, we explored the smaller stages a lot more and unearthed some peaches.

In particular I loved the Williams Green Tent  (an outstanding venue with the best sound and lighting in the entire site – we saw about seven gigs there).  The Park Stage is a real favourite of mine and so is West Holts (my favourite big stage).

The John  Peel Stage suffers fro awful acoustics and my worst gig of the weekend was at JP.

The Pyramid Stage suffers from being too quiet unless you are at the front.  And the only gig I saw on the Other Stage also suffered from poor sound mixing.

All that sounds a bit negative but we had a ball.  And I’ve decided to rank the bands I saw as follows.

1 Savages (10 out of 10).  This incredibly in your face all-girl four piece simply assault you from the stage. In a festival of viscerality this was Glastonbury distilled to perfection.

2 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (9 out of 10) Truly wonderful performance.  At times the “wind” from the bass stack hit you in the face as he told his tales of death and destruction.  In particular his cover of “stagger Lee” by Fred Waring and his Pennsylvians brought the house down.  As part of the performance of this song he stood on the barrier and caught a female in a white dress in a long drawn out stare that was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

3 Chic with Nile Rogers. (9 out of 10) Simply incredible greatest hits show with a ten or so strong band and great backing singers.  Danced n=my ass off without about ten other people for 90 minutes.

4 Penguin Cafe. (9 out of 10) One of my all time favourite groups beautifully reignited by Arthur Jeffes, son of Penguin Cafe Orchestra founder Simon Jeffes, were wonderful in the Avalon Tent.  I was on the barrier for this one.

5 The Hives (9 out of 10).  The Hives opened Glastonbury on The Other Stage and blew most of what followed away with lead singer, Howlin’ Pelle Amquvist, stealing the show with patter that was not matched by anyone else at Glasto (other than, I’m told, Steve Aoki)

6 Ben Howard (9 out of 10).  A beautiful set that somehow managed to captivate most of the Pyramid Stage’s vast audience.  An unexpected gem from a man who only has one album.  What a belter.

7 Rokia Traore. (9 out of 10) Another opener, this time on Saturday on the Pyramid Stage.  Totally out of place here but this beautiful Malian singer pulled out all the stops and it was magical.

8 Vampire Weekend (8 out of 10).  Just a good, polished, fun set on the Pyramid Stage.

9 Fanfare en Petard (8 out of ten) a French rap jazz combo that we stumbled upon on the Shangri La Hell Stage on Thursday night.

10 Melody’s Echo Chamber.  (8 out of 10).  Melody (like Ben Howard) has taken no beating with the ugly stick but her music too was just right for a sunny Saturday lunchtime on the Park Stage.

11 Primal Scream. (8 out of 10).  The “pretend Rolling Stones” were much better than the real thing with Bobby Gillespie seemingly under the influence and raging against the machine that was a disinterested Pyramid Stage crowd in place for the “real thing” that was to follow.  “Are you fuckers all on Valium?” he shrieked in disdain.  Much to my amusement.  They rocked.

12. The Vaccines (8 out of 10).  They’d already performed on the Pyramid Stage but we opted to see them in the much more intimate Williams Green tent.  Very good indeed.

13. Foals. (7 out of ten).  A great set.

14 Tribes. (7 out of 10).  A good set in William’s Green.

15 Swim Deep (7 out of 10).  Nice wee band.  Good set in William’s Green.

16 The Rolling Stones. (6 out of 10). None of my group of friends much liked them.  “Are they waiting for the BBC to finish filming before they get going?” Chris asked me.  The party just never started.  Highly professional, tight and note perfect as they were it was unengaging.  The Pheonix that crowned the stage came to life for “Sympathy for the Devil.”  But so what?  Only one song really cut the mustard for me.  I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.  How very, very appropriate.

17 Barbarossa.  (6 out of 10). A good set but spoiled by the crowd talking throughout as they waited for The Vaccines.

18 Palma Violets (6 out of 10).  A hot ticket on William’s Green, but no big deal.  Copycat early Clash with only 2 good songs.

19 Ben Caplan. (6 out of 10).  Funny guy.  Funny beard.  Funny voice.  All good fun.

20 Mumford and Sons (5 out of 10).  Pass marks, but no more.  The good thing about their gig was that we were right at the front,  so it was a good atmosphere.  But these guys are one trick ponies.  By far the highlight was the encore of “Get by With a little help from my friends” with The Monkeys, Vaccines and Staves joining them on stage.

21 The 1975. (5 out of 10).  Nothing that special.

22 Martha Wainwright (4 out of 10).  I like her a lot but not in her acoustic stage set that was shrieky and awful.

23 Jake Bugg.  (4 out of 10).  Who on earth decided to put him on the Pyramid Stage?  Out of his depth, nervous.  What’s more he was characterless and boring.

24 Bastille. (3 out of 10) He wasn’t helped by an awful John Peel sound mix but it was desperately dull throughout too.

So that’s it.  Back to work now.

(Wish I’d seen Portishead)

Penguin Cafe. A matter of Life

The reviews for this album have mostly been a little patronising and mildly dismissive as if it is some form of PCO lite offering.

I beg to differ.

I am, almost literally, a lifelong PCO fan and have every track they ever recorded, from the experimental Zopf days on the Obscure record label right through their “heydays’ of the 1980’s when their unique musical sound appeared on every second commercial or BBC/C4 soundtrack (most notably I have to say in the Independent’s launch advertising campaign).  So Simon Jeffes’ death in 1987 hit me like a hammer blow.  Ten years later his son, Arthur, began the slow but steady cryogenic rebirth, or perhaps more accurately the creation of a clone with ideas of its own.  This has culminated in the release of this instant classic album, a matter of life, which is, to all intent and purpose, PCO’s 5th studio album.

It has more piano than PCO but other than that it’s broadly the same thing, and certainly cut from the same cloth.

Track 2 (Landau) feature Jeffes and Kathry Tickell on her trademark Northumbrian pipes and its delicious.  Harry Piers, another piano only track was played at Jeffes Sr’s memorial concert and it bears every trademark PCO motif you could ever imagine which is what makes it both a great epitaph for Simon Jeffes but perhaps also a catharsis for Arthur.

The Fox and the Leopard is a carbon copy of a previous PCO song but for me the absolute standout is the minor key classic, From a Blue Temple.

In Penguin Cafe’s second album I’d expect the music to be slightly less of a tribute and to explore more of their own ideas, maybe more of a development from From a Blue Temple; and given that members of Suede and Gorillaz make up the 10 strong ensemble I’m pretty sure there will be new areas aplenty to explore.

For now though, this is a welcome and delightful discovery that I will treasure and hopefully wear out the grooves as much as its four forebears.

Ah, the Penguin Cafe (orchestra)

I don’t know if moving is the best word to describe the two and a half hours I spent with my wife in The Usher Hall; because I never cried.

But I’ll tell you what; it was emotional.

First up, The Portico Quartet; a jazz/modern classical “combo” who totally blew me away but were right on the cusp of Stuart Maconie’s Freakzone playlist (the sort of stuff that ordinarily Jeana would shriek across the house at me “turn that fucking shite off”).

She put up with them.

I adored them.

However, we were there for the Penguins, as we had been, 20 years ago, before we’d ever borne a child into this world. And I reckon it is the only “band” that Jeana has ever seen twice, albeit 20 years apart.

Before I comment on them I have to congratulate the sound engineers for both bands and probably the The Usher Hall itself – in forty years of listening to live music I have never been so aware of how good the acoustics were in a performance.

Now, The PC(O).

Simon Jeffes died in 1998. And we all thought the PCO had been snatched away with him; no posthumous recordings (although plenty of compilations).

And so it has been until his remarkable son, Arthur, decided to take up the reigns and form an entirely new ensemble with the name stripped down to the, perhaps more fashionable, Penguin Cafe.

Tonight they both reinterpreted his beloved father’s music with a Joi de vivre that even Simon could not muster and created new music, in the vein of the original PCO, that was jaw dropping.   In, particular the encore, a solo piano piece that Arthur performed at his father’s memorial service, Harry Piers, and Landau would have been career highs in Simon’s day.

All the favourites were there.

Particularly pleasing were Music for a Found Harmonium, Perpetuum Mobile and Telephone and Rubber Band, but what was most incredible was the quality of musicianship, the ownership they had taken over the material and the added zip that they injected to Jeffes original music.

It truly was on the verge of a religious experience.

After playing for over an hour and a half Jeana said to me ” I never stopped smiling from start to finish.”

I concur absolutely.