Cam Penner and Jon Wood have been making music together for 13 years and over that time they’ve honed that most important of things – a distinctive sound. And a friendship – that’s important too. Cam Penner is the alternatively gruff voiced and high note hitting songwriter, switching between a variety of guitars and a concert ukulele whilst also adding drums and atmospheric samples. And Jon Wood is the quiet guitar maestro sitting throughout the gig and playing with a steely intensity of his own – occasionally switching things up with lap steel which he plays with a precision that makes for a haunting sound when given a subtle echo effect. Together they are unstoppable.
Cam Penner’s songs are not about nothing, and the new album – ‘At War With Reason‘ – contributes a lot of the songs to the night, with the first four being virtually all of Side One. These songs segue easily into one another, building on a soundscape contributed by a pair of small samplers: ‘Eastside‘ is a glorious confusion as Penner self deprecates his contribution “should have been a B-side” as the volume ratchets up with a joyously infectious combination of tune and beats. Then there’s a song like the grimly disturbing ‘Lights On (High School Musical)‘ with its commentary on the proliferation of North American school shootings. Cam Penner cracks out gunshot drum beats as he describes in a stream of consciousness one part of the American nightmare: “Daylight headline oh no gun fire cell phone video lights on here we go“. There’s a similarly excellent combination of ‘Thirteen‘ and ‘She’s In My Head‘ from 2008’s ‘Trouble & Mercy‘ the first of which captures the essence of the strangeness of growing up, whilst the second meditates on obsessive love as few others can do.
Closing out the first half there were two false starts on a song, which perfectionist Jon Wood just can’t live with – the third time truly does pay for all as the abandoned shamanistic ‘Hey You (Lovers of Music)‘ overwhelms the room with a message we can all agree with “Hey you, lovers of music / Well get up pray you never lose it, never / here comes the magic / here come the tragic / the fantastic dynamic romantic“. Right on.
The room – yeah I guess we’d better address that particular elephant. The Green Note is a small space, so having arrived a little later than planned there’d been an anticipation that the evening would be spent at the back of the room, propping up the bar and being jostled by a stream of thirsty punters. Not actually the case. Four people, that’s how many had already arrived. By the time Cam & Jon took the stage we were about eight, and a few late arrivals dragged us up to slightly above a dozen. Really, London? This is great music, emotionally open and honest, powerfully played and meticulously crafted. This was the first night of the tour so it’s not too late for the rest of UK to show up the capital city as the home of Philistines. Dates are here. ‘Nuff said.
The second half had more from ‘At War With Reason‘, opening with the multi-layered electronica of ‘I Ain’t Nobody‘, with delicate guitar work offsetting the waves of hypnotically looped sounds before moving into the sensual ‘Right here right there like that‘ which combines passionate images with a sense of movement and a drifting life on the road. ‘Ghost Car‘ is a fantastically upbeat and driving song about moving from the city to the country, moving into America, “black tar rolling out for miles and miles / lead me up to the mountain land of sugar pine, sugar pine / in the land of the brave and the home of the free / we’re chasing down our dreams and drinking cheap gasoline“. A great song that moves us onto the capping couple of the night, ‘Can’t Afford The Blues‘ and ‘Honey‘, where the shamanistic feel of the last album ‘Sex & Politics‘ is once more delved into. These have Cam Penner grooving hard, whilst Jon Wood’s guitar playing is superb throughout. Both songs are making dramatic statements about humanity and living, in their own ways – a man’s need to stay mentally strong in hard times if he’s not to fall into depression, and then the heart racing lustfulness of ‘Honey‘. Simply stated, love is an overpowering emotion and passion can be overwhelming “I want your honey / yeah I want your honey / taste it on my lips / don’t keep it from me.” It’s raw and it gets the pulse racing, it beats out in confusion and then, like Jon Wood’s guitar, rips loose.
It’s a great closer for the set, and a great closer for a great night because, despite the paucity of the audience Cam Penner and Jon Wood gave a quality and memorable performance, the kind that gets you checking those dates to see where else you could make on this tour. You should have been there.
Lights On (High School Musical)
She’s in my head
House of liars
Hey you (lovers of music)
I Ain’t nobody
Right here right there like that
Cool cool nights
Flesh & Bone
Can’t afford the blues
Over & over