AUK’s first jaunt at 2020’s Celtic Connections took us to the grand concert hall in the city centre to see a one off show by Canadian Cam Penner and his erstwhile sidekick Jon Wood. It’s a measure of both the international reputation of Celtic Connections and Penner’s growing career that they conspired to fly the pair from the dominion to Glasgow for one show before they flew back the following day. Perhaps not the best way to play a show in these times of climate concern but, heck, the ‘plane was going to fly here and back, Penner or no Penner and he’s the kind of guy you just know is going to plant a tree or two once he gets home.
Being accustomed to see the pair in closer confines, it was strange to see them on such a large stage and from such a distance. Fortunately, the new auditorium has great sightlines, intimate lighting and an incredibly good sound so it easy enough to be drawn into the music from the moment it kicked off. Of course, the sonic brew from Penner and Wood helped as they came on stage and messed around a bit with tapes, setting the mood almost as if they were back in Penner’s man cave back in British Columbia. Ambient sounds, Penner moaning quietly over reverbed handclaps and then wailing into his harmonica and we were off as ‘Gather Round’ came into shape. Penner’s looped vocals continued as he picked up his guitar, strode to the drum kit and crashed into the heavy blues vibe of ‘Eastside’ which then gave way to the spectral ‘Poor You’ with Wood adding sleek guitar with cosmic liquid notes reminiscent of Jerry Garcia. As on their latest album, ‘At War With Reason’, ‘Poor You’ segued into Penner’s retort to the spate of U.S. school shootings, ‘Lights On (High School Musical)’ which was angry and powerful.
Four songs in and with the crowd pinned to their seats after such a pulverising and mesmerising introduction, Penner greeted the audience. Tonight he spoke less than this reviewer recalls from previous gigs, allowing his music to talk for him as he and Wood ran through a superb selection of songs, sublime sweetness alternating with raw edged rants. ‘This Could be Your Anthem’ was a warm hearted, almost ethereal trip with Penner’s voice almost falsetto as Wood’s guitar rippled and rang beautifully, ‘Honey’ saw Wood ripping jagged notes from his lap steel as Penner howled like the proverbial wolf and ‘Can’t Afford The Blues’ was a menacing rumble.
As the show progressed Penner did tell us about his work at a homeless refuge in his hometown leading into a theme which informed the set from there on. Talking of turbulent times and the eternal struggle between darkness and light he offered a surprising version of John Prine’s ‘All The Best’, harking back to the days when Penner was mining the singer/songwriter route. He also delved deep into his own back catalogue for the Neil Young like ‘Driftwood’, the words, “It’s Going to get worse before it gets better,” perhaps summing up his take on these monstrous times and a fine way to end the show. There was an encore of course which featured a jackhammer tale on ‘Memphis’ with the guitars and drums conniving to end the song sounding like an ocean liner foghorn. Quite an astounding show and hopefully it won’t be long before Penner and Wood come back for a lengthier sojourn.
The support band tonight was a five piece all female bluegrass band, Midnight Skyracer. An Anglo Irish combo, they were an entertaining opening act with an engaging presence and some fine songs. They’ve obviously practised a lot as their chops on fiddle, mandolin, Dobro and banjo will attest and while they played tribute to Bill Monroe in a fine manner, their own songs pass muster. The delicate ‘Virginia Rose’ was a delight to hear and they showed that they can be quite ballsy on ‘Working Girl’s Blues’. One gets the impression that they would be a blast to hear in a smaller venue.