Concorde 2, Brighton
Sunday 11th November, 2018
The Concorde usually hosts mid-ranking rock bands or popular club nights – tonight it’s completely sold out for an acoustic piano trio. Gogo Penguin walk onstage like rockstars to John Carpenter style atmospherics – Chris Illingworth plucks one repeated note from the piano from amidst the swirling sea of haze and reverb – there’s a surge of excitement from the crowd as they recognise the intro to the latest release A Humdrum Star – good market penetration there, guys – then Nick Blacka on bass and Rob Turner on drums kick in with a rushing, tumbling rhythm and we’re instantly caught up and carried away.
Gogo Penguin have been working towards their vision of jazz music as spectacle since their inception, and bigger stages and more financial clout have brought their design closer to fruition. The band have a level of togetherness, telepathic communication, and control at high volume that come with years of touring at a level that affords decent monitor systems. While both Blacka and Turner play with a shade more freedom than on the record, each move is still carefully plotted around the matrix of Illingworth’s repetitive piano figures to achieve maximum impact, and nothing is left to chance. The M.O. has remained basically consistent throughout their five releases to date; plangent minor chord progressions over Blacka’s rock solid, powerfully accurate bass and Turner’s busy, restless drum figures, ever building towards the big final reveal.
The dominant mood might be described as euphoric melancholy – a big-sky emotional uplift that perhaps has its closest parallels in the indie-rock of artists like Bon Iver. But everything has gone up a gear since their last release; added lights, pulsing strobes and extra sound gear are deployed to such overwhelmingly immersive effect that it’s hard to remember that the band we’re watching has the same basic line-up as, say, the Bill Evans Trio. Turner’s kick drum now has the sub-bass impact of the proper club music – Blacka’s bass retains its natural tone, with audible clicks and growls, to function as the articulate voice at the centre of the sound, and is granted most of the improvisational space – Illingworth’s piano is enhanced with massive reverbs to mimic the electronica that inspire the band’s vision. They have successfully mined the seam of wistful ambient hipness personified by such emblematic post-millennial artists as Bonobo and Nils Frahm and added a level of muscular virtuosity to deepen the appeal; the audience ranges from young twenty-something urbanites to grizzled jazz connoisseurs, and their absorption in the music’s shamelessly direct emotional manipulation is total.
One Percent from their last v2.0 release is something of a mission statement, and the eerie reproductions of electronic data glitches that the band play in the closing moments have been expanded to an almost supernatural degree of tightness – this is a truly unique musical language that the trio have developed. Blacka has an unaccompanied solo spot that reveals an unexpected Celtic tinge to his phrasing, and also takes on the role of compere, breaking the tension with carefully timed announcements of unassuming Northern matiness. The final track, Transient State takes the formula and refines it to the extent that the strobes are pulsing in and out in perfect sync with the opening and closing hi-hat – the next step is surely some kind of VR-enhanced, all-out sensory assault as Gogo Penguin take their unique vision to the Albert Hall (tomorrow) and then out across the world, as far as it can take them.
Photo of Nick Blacka by Lisa Wormsley.