Having completed my final essay of third year last Wednesday, I celebrated by checking out GoGo Penguin at the Phoenix. Rooted in jazz, the band redefines the genre for the 21st century by combining it with a slew of other sounds such as ambient and electronica. The instrumental trio found themselves on the shortlist for last year’s Mercury Prize with v2.0, a stunning album that disregards any notion of genre in favour of crafting mood and atmosphere. Although they lost out to Scottish hip-hop trio, Young Fathers, the award has given them a huge boost in publicity which was reflected by the crowd at the Phoenix.
Before GoGo Penguin took to the stage, two other instrumental trios were supporting them. First up was local band Chiyoda Ku. Heavier than the two bands that followed, they played a thunderous take on post-rock. Toying with tempo and volume, their tightness was their greatest asset as every nuance was hit perfectly.
The second act, Mammal Hands, bore a striking resemblance to GoGo Penguin in the first song, but Jordan Smart’s enigmatic saxophone quickly set them apart. With a set largely drawn from last year’s Animalia - a great album that I was motivated to check out on the strength of their set - it was eclectic and fun. Smart was very much the band’s leader: his sax playing felt as though he was their vocalist, scatting over the top of the rhythmic percussion and keys.
As tends to be the case with instrumental bands, GoGo Penguin let their music do the talking. They leapt straight into a prolonged medley incorporating a new song and v2.0’s gently building opener Murmurations, instantly recreating the tangible atmosphere of their studio recordings. Although much of their set drew from their spectacularly brooding 2014 album, they performed several untitled new songs too, one of which had its debut in Exeter. Their set was mesmeric, drawing the crowd in with their hypnotic rhythms.
One of the highlights of the set was the complete silence from the crowd while pianist, Chris Illingworth, delivered a gentle solo intro. However, the band’s entrancing style was not completely engrossing throughout and their energy did lull towards the tail-end of their set. Thankfully, stomping renditions of To Drown In You and Garden Dog Barbecue regained the absorbing atmosphere. After they went offstage, I was somewhat disappointed that they hadn’t played the skittering Hopopono, and so were others judging by the huge reception when they returned to perform it as an encore.
The band’s crowd was one of the most diverse I’ve ever seen, ranging from teenagers to balding men sipping red wine. The most enthusiastic member of the crowd was at least sixty years old but still in his element. The older crowd made for a noticeable difference to the average gig; it mercifully meant I was not faced with a sea of iPhone screens whenever I looked towards the stage. This made for a more captivating experience as the reverent crowd encouraged me to focus on GoGo Penguin’s hypnotic performance.