Cam Penner and his sonic wizard sidekick Jon Wood transformed the Tron theatre into a magical space for an evening, Wood setting up a constant thrum and throb with his array of tape loops and sound effects. Akin to the background ambience found in nature, birdsong, wind rustles, trees creaking, the eternal hum of Mother Nature, the effects underpinned the music played and framed the pair’s perambulations across the stage as they chose their instruments with Penner offering lengthy, wise and humorous introductions to several of the songs.
For music carved in a home built wood shed there’s a great deal of technical wizardry involved but at its heart is Penner’s voice which can change from a tender whisper to a threatening holler and Wood’s lap steel and jagged electric guitar playing. Rudimentary percussion is banged and kicked, Penner plucks a tiny guitar and the loops of sound loop on. The opening song, I’m Calling Out (from the new Sex & Politics album), evoked nothing less than the sweet soft country sound of Neil Young back in the days before it segued into the frenzied alarum of I Believe, Penner summoning ghosts of secular and sacred music hollers, Wood ripping notes from his guitar. Continuing with the new album Broke Down had Penner in a fragile state, his voice a croaked plea while Wood sprinkled the song with slight burbles of sound, almost like faint raindrops. Again the pair then shook up the atmosphere with anther howl of a song, the chain gang like wail of Hey You (Lovers of Music).
Four songs in before Penner addressed the audience who were by now desperate for a breather after this impressive opening. His beguiling tales of dick shaped missiles, his love for RL Burnside and Public Enemy and how he came to be featured on the BBC series Stonemouth punctuated the remainder of the set, his beaming grin and obvious joy at being on stage endearing him to the audience. A brace of songs from To Build A Fire were delights, House of Liars the aforementioned song from the telly and No Consequence a spooky wail dredged from the swamp. A rousing Bring Forth The Healing had the emotional heft and strength of ancient spirituals, Penner showing why some folk have described his music as shamanistic.
Support act, Rayna Gellert was a delight. Playing fiddle and guitar along with her partner Jeff Keith on guitar she epitomised the connection between Celtic music and the new world as she spoke of the Scottish settlers in North Carolina. Playing her own tunes and songs from Uncle Dave Macon and Washington Phillips she reminded one of John Hartford at times, her fiddle jigs and waltzes soaked in old time charm while her rendition of Black Eyed Susie, a favourite from her days in Uncle Earl (and arranged by her father Dan Gellert) was rousing. Singing more these days Gellert was joined on stage for several numbers by Scots singer Siobhan Miller who added some excellent harmonies to Phillips’ Take Your Burden To The Lord and a striking In The Ocean from her album Old Light.