Penguin Cafe, Corn Exchange, Cambridge, 30 September 2019

Rising from the ashes of the late Simon Jeffes’ pioneering ensemble Penguin Cafe Orchestra his son Arthur has now built on the legacy with his own compositions and re-imagined versions of earlier pieces performing as Penguin Cafe. The first half of the show featured the new LP ‘Handfuls of Night’, based on Arthur’s Greenpeace trip to Antarctica, embracing the mysticism of the landscape on tracks like ‘Winter Sun’ as well as the characteristics of four of the penguin species to be found there.

With a rock band lightshow and flanked on stage by two watching Emperor penguin head sculptures, this seven-piece incarnation of the band is a string quartet with added percussion, bass (electric and upright), harmonium and of course those rippling piano figures that drive many of the pieces. ‘Chapter’ is a perfect example of this, a lengthy meditation likened by Arthur to a 70s TV cop show theme (he carefully introduced each of the tracks played) whereas ‘Pythagoras On The Line Again’ is an experiment using beat frequencies, octave resonance and dialling tones.
My favourite is ‘At the Top of the Hill, They Stood’ with gorgeous impressionistic chord changes and a gradually building sound.

The second half was a trip through the Penguin back catalogue, with the familiar ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ and ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’ being very popular with the audience. A cover of Simian Mobile Disco’s ‘Wheels Within Wheels’ was an unexpected excursion and the show ended with the evocative ‘Rescue’, a soundtrack for a film yet to be made.
The Cafe in full flight is an immersive experience but perhaps the most affecting moment in the show was near the end when Arthur Jeffes played ‘Harry Piers’, a solo piano piece simply described as being ‘…written for my Dad…‘. This musical innovator died in 1997 (aged 48) but his musical inspiration is certainly living on.

https://www.penguincafe.com/

Black Country, New Road : Portland Arms, Cambridge, 29 September 2019

Opening the evening at this much-anticipated show were Cambridge’s Culture CT, a no-compromise post-punk quartet. With an instrumental line-up that had the clout of unrelenting drums and the guitar/bass combination somehow sounding like two basses they set up extended grinding Fall-style grooves as a platform for caustic vocals.
The band were on good form but I’m not sure if the audience were quite on the same wavelength tonight, as the reception given to pounding industrial rockers like ‘The Bludgeon’ seemed a bit polite!

Crossing many genres and with much media interest leading to an early sellout for this show Black Country, New Road were destined to make a big impact on a quiet Sunday evening in Cambridge.

The seven-piece band are in their own world and we were soon drawn into it with unpredictable instrumental passages, modern jazz excursions with violin, keys and saxophone alongside the conventional rock band line-up. The bass was blowing the walls down and the fireworks drumming is a performance in itself. Add to all this the strange dissonant vocals that appear on tracks like ‘Athen’s France’ and signature tune ‘Sunglasses’ with its alienation lyric resolving into ‘…I’m modern Scott Walker…I’m a surprisingly smooth talker and I am invincible in these sunglasses…’. The track builds into a two chord industrial pounding that is exhausting in its intensity.

With the declaiming vocals, abstract lyrics and some of the angular music on show comparisons may be made to the ‘Remain In Light’ era Talking Heads but BC,NR doesn’t even copy themselves over their tight forty-five minute set. Like a bar band in an 80s movie of a dystopian sci-fi society this ensemble seem to be simultaneously futuristic and rooted in current sounds. Amazing!

https://www.facebook.com/BlackCountryNewRoad/
https://www.facebook.com/CULTURECT/

‘Pop Level’ Showcase, Blue Moon , Cambridge, 27 September 2019

Curated by composer/performer/producer Hydra Lerna and following a similar evening at The Birdcage in Norwich the night before, this was a showcase for upcoming artists with a spirit of independence in their music and electropop sounds underneath distinctive voices.

It was a Cambridge debut for multi-talented Caii, having travelled down from Manchester. New single ‘Fuel’ was a fine summation of her sound; with big bold beats and haunting synthesiser layers integral to a soaring vocal. It is a dark lyric but the performance lifts it into the positive. With live synth drums to add drama, a new composition performed at the piano and a moving cover of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ this was a strong start to the evening and her likeable personality really shone through.

Currently working on their debut album, Amethysts were last in Cambridge at Strawberry Fair earlier this year, their sonic landscapes floating across the midsummer sunset. The formula works too in the intimate confines of the Blue Moon, as the duo invite you to lose yourself in their unique and haunting tunes. Signature track ‘My Love’ sounded as good as ever and this million-streamed track was one of a succession of high quality single releases that were featured in their set tonight. Echoing guitar weaved between the keyboards as the vocals and harmonies added the magic.

Hydra Lerna
opened with her last single ‘In The Dark’; a statement of musical and lyrical intent with a complex instrumentation never losing sight of the stately rhythm, especially when the full bank of synthesisers arrive in the mix. Her songs are from the heart, with personal themes that sometimes transcend conventional pop territory but always with an ear to a good pulsing groove. She is a talented harp player and it can often take to the stage as a ‘second band member’ but tonight it featured only in samples and unique tones in many of the songs, especially the darkness of ‘Angel V. Psycho’. Early track ‘Clean Like You’ gave her vocal a full range, with 80s analogue synth tones that also appeared in one of my favourites – the sparse but effective ‘Distraction’.

The thoughtful and haunting ‘Reckless’ closed the show, a superb end to an excellent evening which showed the musical talent that is out there waiting to be fully recognised.

https://hydralerna.com/
https://www.weareamethysts.co.uk/
https://www.iamcaii.com/



Caswell, Blue Moon, Cambridge, 22 September 2019

It was the first time in Cambridge for electro-popster Caswell, following on from playing a prestigious support slot at one of Ed Sheeran’s recent homecoming shows.
I missed the first two support bands but was lucky enough to see a fine set by Leicester-based singer Miša. With a relaxed stage presence and a seemingly effortless soulful voice her compositions were enhanced by two empathetic musicians – flowing, sumptuous bass and jazzy, sonorous guitar weaved around the vocal lines. I particularly liked ‘Good Things Are Coming’, based around a reassuring descending chord sequence. Her smooth songs went down well with the chilled-out Blue Moon audience.

I last saw Caswell at her EP launch in Ipswich earlier this year, reviewed at https://cambridgemusicreviews.net/tag/caswell/. Tonight she took to the stage with confidence and flair, her three-piece band on top form and an excellent sound mix in this intimate venue. With these elements in place it is her songs and personality that shine through – each track is a polished gem of soul-infused electronica; with a subtle melancholia pervading some of the up-beat tempos. It is music to lose yourself in when the band kick in with thunderstrikes of sound as Caswell’s vocals soar with power but hints of vulnerability.

The superior pop anthem ‘Dance Sober’ is still one of the highlights of her set – Caswell was pleased to receive audience recognition when it started. The band had a real chance to shine on ‘Hurt Me Bad’ with the contrasting sections of light and dark and having heard a cover of ‘Glory Box’ on the Blue Moon stage the previous night here was another, taking the essence of the song and pushing it to the limits.

It was getting late on a Sunday evening so unfortunately no time for the classy last single ‘Surface’ but on the evidence of these shows there will be plenty more opportunities to hear this talented performer…

https://www.facebook.com/caswellofficial/
https://www.facebook.com/misaband/

Sunday Driver, Blue Moon, Cambridge, 21 September 2019

A relaxed and atmospheric event at the Blue Moon, showcasing artists on the Trapped Animal record label…

Jeremy Tuplin opened the show, with his quiet tales of fleeting thoughts and emotions, mythologies and reflections. Having recently been touring with a full band tonight he was accompanied only by a warmly resonating hollow-body electric guitar, emphasising the wordplay and intimacy of the lyrics. An older song juxtaposed Einstein and Bowie but most of the set was drawn from his acclaimed 2019 album ‘Pink Mirror’, including the addictive rhymes of current single ‘Gaia’ and the melodic eloquence of ‘The Beast’.

Former frontman of neo-folk-classical outfit ‘Wooden Arms’ Alexander Carson sat at the piano for a short set of his own compositions. Introspective and unhurried, the haunting and very personal vocals are gently punctuated by impressionistic keyboard flourishes with overlaying textures and tempo changes. The one-word titles of the tracks on current long-player ‘Ellipsism’ are as enigmatic and evocative as the songs themselves.

Kerry Devine is the lead singer and guitarist of Trapped Animal’s premier punksters ‘The Baby Seals’; in her solo guise she performs ethereal folk pieces, weaving her own sensual vocals through guitar patterns that build and linger. She connects with the audience during straightforward explanations of the tracks and her clear commitment to her music. Alex was back at the piano to join Kerry for an effective cover of Portishead’s ‘Glory Box’, always a good song to hear.

The audience were seated around candlelit tables for the performances and that retro cabaret club setting was perfect for the tone of the show, especially the acoustic steampunk fusion of headliners Sunday Driver. The band opened with an extended instrumental featuring harp and sitar, driven by the electric bass and drums. Then singer Chandrika Nath joined the ensemble for signature song ‘Mechanical Angel’, with gorgeous harp accompaniment. With constant sonic explorations and surprises the songs move from pensive ballads to darker worlds populated by ‘Rats’, ‘Black Spider’ (featuring the rich tones of bass clarinet) and the sinister ‘The General’.

It was a great evening, four quality performances in an excellent setting!

http://www.trappedanimal.com/
http://www.sundaydriver.co.uk/
https://www.kerrydevine.org/
https://www.alexandercarsonmusic.co.uk/
http://www.jeremytuplin.com/

Half Man Half Biscuit, Junction J1, Cambridge, 6 September 2019

The much-loved Half Man Half Biscuit returned to the Junction J1 for another sell-out show, once again supported by Cambridge stalwarts Model Village, whose early set time caught out many of the audience (including me!).

Half Man Half Biscuit arrived on stage to the Portsmouth Sinfonia’s dissonant version of the 2001 theme. When the band opened with anti-tribute ‘Bob Wilson – Anchorman’ quickly followed by new bat-themed audience favourite ‘Renfield’s Afoot’ and death-ode ‘When The Evening Sun Goes Down’ it was clear this could be a vintage show with leader Nigel Blackwell full of dry asides and an excellent sound mix at the Junction.

They have a huge back catalogue, virtually any of the tracks can make a surprise reappearance in their lengthy sets but tonight there were plenty from their newest LP, including the bittersweet poetry of ‘Terminus’ ‘…time creeps up unseen, and it puts me back at the front of the bus…. hands I once held no longer there….grey falls on the green..as I try and get used to ‘me’ and not ‘us’….’

As always the superfans in the audience know every word, but the band continues to draw in new converts to the cause as they play infrequent shows across the UK.
The surreal imagery of the lyrics is much documented and bizarre juxtapositions give life to the low-level celebrities and imaginary characters that populate the songs ‘….sour-faced she picked out the gherkins, saw Christ in Dorothy Perkins…’. The Cambridge audience is attentive to every nuance but let go for the sheer celebration of ‘Joy Division Oven Gloves’ and ‘The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Is The Light Of An Upcoming Train)’, as well as uplifting gems like ‘Swerving The Checktrade’.
The traditional cover version encore tonight was Pink Floyd’s ‘Bike’, given the closeness of the venue to composer Syd Barrett’s house. Another local reference and one of their best ‘For What Is Chatteris’ followed and finally the brooding semi-spoken ‘Every Time a Bell Rings’ was a strong finale.

The more you listen to this band the more the lyrics lodge in the consciousness and as many fans will say they begin to overlay your view of some of the obscurities and references of life and culture…

All together now, ‘…Is this your sanderling?…’

https://cobweb.businesscollaborator.com/hmhb/index.htm

Vic Allen : Ghost Town, single released September 2019

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Vic Allen has continued to release top-quality singles since her ‘Between The Lines’ EP in early 2018. The Norwich-based performer blends heartfelt lyrics with a new-country instrumental backing, subtle and always reflective of the sentiment of the song. ‘Talk’ had a longing and urgency in the sung short phrases before the chorus sailed in with its descending backing voices and raised the track to new heights.

‘Enough’ was built around a mid-tone guitar figure which continues effectively through the song as the lyric unwinds ‘… walking home with my headphones on…same old street…same old song…‘. The tale of frustration weaved through with the chasing of dreams resolves into the chorus line ‘…it ain’t enough for me…’. It is an impressive song of questing and questioning with a contemplative and cinematic soundtrack.

Now new single ‘Ghost Town’ is a more soulful ballad, with the vocal performance the key aspect as guitar effects drift in and out below. It is a slow building complex track featuring melancholy thoughts, ‘….I don’t want to fall asleep with this fear in my heart…’ with bleak conclusions ‘…out here it’s just a ghost town…’.
Halfway through the percussion joins to propel the narrator and listener through the emotionally desolate townscape of the title. With a mesmerising voice, a deep bass line and a spectrum of guitars and sonic textures this adds up to a haunting and memorable single.

https://www.vicallenmusic.com/
https://cambridgemusicreviews.net/2018/03/05/vic-allen-between-the-lines-ep-released-february-2018/