It’s probably only when looking back you realise, that when you go to see Cam Penner and Jon Wood play live, you’re going on a visit.
Really, everyone’s back in Cam’s hand-built studio shack; and in telling you, quietly but with no little pride, about its inception, its usefulness, Cam is just reminding you of where you really are. You aren’t confined to The Tron’s restrictive tiers of seats, you’re in Cam & Jon’s shack, leaning against a wall, squatting on the floor… it’s just that there’s a lot more floor space than usual.
There’s a marked difference in how these two inhabit their space. Jon is as precise as his carefully executed electronic contributions. A finger moves directly to a switch, a pedal, a guitar string, because it needs to be there a moment later to produce a sound. His eyes may move to the next task required of his finger, or foot, or hand – planning ahead, being prepared; but I’m convinced that if he could carry out the check by moving just one eye, he would. When an unruly slide guitar, instead of remaining perched against the stool where he left it, slides to the floor as if in annoyance that it’s being ignored – it receives a confused, almost hurt, glance. Jon is momentarily disturbed by the guitar’s rebellious impulse and has to look again to ensure he hasn’t imagined what he’s just witnessed. He files the information and returns to the sequencer – which dare not move.
Cam, on the other hand, ambles. He paces nervously. Cables are narrowly avoided, most of the time. A stand or a harmonica will be shown, generally, where it should wait for him and usually manages to stay there. Cam moves around the stage like you’d imagine him moving around a workshop. He’s by no means inattentive to his visitors, but you have to remember he isn’t used to so many people squeezing into his shack. Cam also chats, amiably. He chats about the day-long journeys he and Jon make to share their music, about his community radio show, about the day Jon came to install a studio in the shack Cam built, and embryonic plans for 10th anniversary shindig.
Songs are not there to be introduced, it’s debatable whether they’re even there to be performed. The songs exist to be experienced, to be lived again by Jon and Cam, like visiting old friends, and you’re very welcome to come along on the visit, to experience the song. Things as hard-wired as titles, and even song boundaries, are of little consequence. Hey You! (Lovers Of Music) is heralded with a triumphant cry of recognition, House of Liars is precluded by the story of when Cam was asked if his songs could be used for the TV series Stonemouth, but titles are too restrictive for when you’re hanging out.
Words, however, hold much more importance. Words are poetry, and words are why the song is there in the first place. Cam’s vocal is soft, pleading, angry, passionate. When Cam sings ‘I love the way you move across the floor’, his voice moves across the floor with his eyes, with his heart. When he asks ‘Tell me where the love I spent, has gone’ you long to be able to answer, or at least help him find the answer. All the power, all the drama, all the sorrow, is in the rise and fall of the vocal. And it all makes you want stomp and cheer, to wail and cry along with them. The songs come and go in waves – washing the shores of our expectations like a tide; with the softest caress, or crashing power.
In time, you realise that the vocal is where the song is really delivered, the vocal inhabits a space above the samples, the guitars, the drums. Unless there’s a crashing guitar solo from Jon, a snare drum thrashed with a vehement brush by Cam, the wail of a harmonica when the words just won’t fit – the music, in all its precise, intimate and beautiful intricacy, is incidental…but fascinating.
Cam Penner and Jon Wood came to Glasgow, they wanted to hang out at Celtic Connections. They played everywhere anyone would listen. Wherever they played, everyone listened. They were all glad they did.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
The Tron Theatre, 16th January
January 2016 UK Dates
21: Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham
22: Otley Courthouse
23: The Guitar Bar, Nottingham
24: The Green Note, London