Unplanned Review: GoGo Penguin

GOGO PENGUIN: Thalia Hall, Chicago, Illinois. May 7, 2023

From the very first time I heard them, I’ve been a huge fan of British jazz trio GoGo Penguin. For me, they are at the forefront of the modern jazz movement. No doubt this is because theirs is music that can’t be confined solely to the “jazz” genre. There are elements of modern influences like Radiohead and Aphex Twin to go with the more traditional sounds. GoGo Penguin is stretching the traditional musical bounds and doing wondrous things with it.

I had a chance to see this band in Chicago in 2018, when they played a small, intimate room called the Constellation (a venue I’ve visited at least four times since). I even went so far as to buy a ticket. Alas, I still lived in St. Louis, I was exhausted from work, and couldn’t summon the energy to make the road trip. Stupid me. My second plan to see the band at Metro Chicago (where I saw Russian Circles) two years later was derailed by Covid. Now, at last, I would have a chance to get up and close with one of my favorite bands.

Let’s take a second to consider the fact that this was, in fact, a standing jazz gig. I’m reasonably sure this was a first for me. The room’s energy changes when the audience stands. They seem more engaged and connection to the musicians seems much easier. That was definitely the case here. GoGo Penguin might be considered jazz, but the power coming off that stage was anything but.

I’ve often commented on how impressed I was at the band’s ability to fill up so much mix space with just a piano, double bass, and drums. Seeing them live takes that thought to the next level. Before heading to the gig, I considered leaving my earplugs at home. I mean, how loud can a jazz gig be?

As soon as Jon Scott stepped on his kick drum pedal, I found out. Good thing I decided to take the plugs anyway! As I’ve said, the GoGo Penguin sound is a powerful one, indeed!

Nick Blacka

The band is touring behind their new album Everything Is Going To Be OK. It’s a record built around change, heartbreak, and loss. Bassist Nick Blacka recently lost his mother and brother eight months apart, both due to cancer. Working on the album was his personal oasis, and the emotion in his playing makes that clear.

The support system he had in keyboardist Chris Illingworth and Scott was readily apparent. The band’s music doesn’t feel like it’s dominated by a “leader.” It’s ensemble driven, even as Illingworth provides lead lines to propel the group dynamic. This is one of the reasons GoGo Penguin is such a great band. There’s no room for ego. If one aspect fails, the entire soundscape falls apart.

Chris Illingworth

While GoGo Penguin came on the scene as a more “traditional” (read, no electric instruments) group, they have now expanded their sound to include electric bass and synthesizers. The shift has been gradual, which is probably why it’s so effective. The band’s sound is still predominantly acoustic, but the electronics really open things up.

Scott is the new kid on the block, having only been with the band for a couple of years. It’s pointless and unnecessary to declare him better or worse than previous drummer Rob Turner, though Scott’s sound comes across as a bit more aggressive and upfront. It works for the group dynamic as a whole, which is also growing incrementally aggressive. In a good way.

Jon Scott

The band tackled its new songs and classics alike with the same deft touch and dexterity. The group chemistry is apparent throughout their performance, with each member playing respectfully off the other. There’s no showy overplaying or grandstanding to be found in this band. Each does his part to take the song where it needs to go. And that’s more than enough.

Simply put, the live GoGo Penguin experience adds a wonderful layer of depth to an already great studio output. I, for one, wouldn’t say no to a live recording from this tour. But if that doesn’t happen, I strongly urge you to get yourself a ticket and take this band in before they get too big for an up-close experience.

Believe me — that day is coming.


Please follow me on my socials, all of which you can find here: https://linktr.ee/cirdecsongs

I’m currently at work on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell

Would you like to have your album reviewed? Please contact me at cirdecsongs@gmail.com


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