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GoGo Penguin at The Ritz in Manchester review

Andrew Williams was present at Manchester trio GoGo Penguin's biggest home-town show to date.

Ben Smith

Date published: 11th Nov 2016

Image: GoGo Penguin

Rob Turner, Nick Blacka and Chris Illingworth’s biggest home-town show to date as GoGo Penguin proved that the trio, while often pigeonholed solely as a jazz band, have created a sound that cannot labelled quite so hastily. 

Far from it: from the moment the ethereal piano keys of opener ‘Al Res’ filled the room, to following track ‘Unspeakable World’ - both from their latest studio release Man Made Object, it was immediately clear that their wholly acoustic sound effortlessly marries a few different sub-genres. 

Their piano-driven sound fuses elements of hip hop, and while it’s all created without the use of electronic equipment it, at times, feels almost entirely electronic. Their compositions explore rhythms that often erupt mid-track before settling, retreating from striking keynotes back into the lonely, tingling piano that kicked things off prior to rolling percussion and walking bass lines entering the fray.

Their second album, 2014’s V2.0, was nominated for the Mercury Prize. However, that year the judges opted to hand the much-coveted award to Young Fathers. Considering the winner is usually a rank outsider, it’s surprising that the band, who still fly under the radar in their home city, weren't gifted the prize and the £20,000. They would've been a fitting winner. 

Perhaps, though, the judges just played it safe – there’s no obvious GoGo Penguin band leader, which while not unconventional in jazz circles, it’s still quite unorthodox in the alternative scene. 

Each member, with Nick Blacka manning the double bass between Rob Turner on percussion and Chris Illingworth on grand piano, shares the limelight (or lack of). Without a vocalist, it’s purely their music that gives the band its personality, not the presence of a strong front-man.  

There was no Mick Jagger-type character to spearhead the performance. The music itself did the talking, except for a brief vocal attack of Donald Trump’s election shock triumph just hours before. In light of that and following his post-victory speech, maybe a cover of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ would’ve a been fitting protest of sorts. 

Currently, BadBadNotGood from the US and the lesser-known German duo Grandbrothers are doing relatively similar things to GoGo Penguin. The Brainfeeder label too, is having its say with Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington fusing the genre with their own distinct blends of electronica and soul.

All are taking jazz out of its traditional sphere and are giving it a modern twist, each keeping its spirit alive and presenting it to an unfamiliar audience. That might not be to the taste of the purists, but with GoGo Penguin’s influences listed as Massive Attack and Aphex Twin, they’re not going to end up sounding exactly like the Bob James Trio, are they? 

Ultimately, The Ritz, complete with its not-very-jazzy strobe lighting, offered itself as a unique venue for a band that operates outside the confines of genre and scene. Yet, whose rich and diverse sound has earned acclaim from critics and an audience seeking experimental eclecticism in times when the mainstream is heading full throttle in different direction altogether.  

Like this? Read our interview with GoGo Penguin