Penny & Sparrow to close Wheeler Opera House ‘On the Rise’ concert series
If You Go …
What: Penny & Sparrow
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Saturday, Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
When Penny & Sparrow opened up for the Oh Hellos at Belly Up in September, a few dozen very young, very dedicated fans of the folk duo gathered at the foot of the stage. They sang — and sometimes whispered — along to the lyrics they all knew by heart.
These kids had already caught onto a band that the rest of the Belly Up crowd soon fell for, and which a larger audience will meet this Saturday as Penny & Sparrow close the Wheeler Opera House’s “On the Rise” concert series.
At the Belly Up show, the duo won over a modest crowd that filled in over the course of the 30-minute set, which showcased the band’s stark, stirring take on acoustic folk in songs like “Bones,” “Gold” and “Bourbon” along with a commanding a capella take on its “Fantine.” But the set also included a cheeky cover of Usher’s sexed-up R&B number “Nice and Slow,” a silly whistle-along with the crowd and witty banter between singer Andy Baxter and guitarist Kyle Jahnke that was worthy of a comedy duo.
A little-known band opening for a popular act like the Oh Hellos, oftentimes, is going to be greeted by an indifferent crowd that talks through their set. Not so with Penny & Sparrow. This attentive audience, when it wasn’t laughing at Jahnke and Baxter’s self-deprecating back-and-forth, was silent.
The simple power of Penny & Sparrow’s music, along with the easy charm of the duo’s repartee, commands attention. The duo takes pride in winning over a crowd that doesn’t know them, Baxter said.
“We know, just playing the odds, that most of the people there in the room are not there to see us,” he said before the Belly Up show. “We’re an obstacle in the way — something they have to get done before they can see who they came there for. So it’s a challenge to earn trust. We’d love for them to leave saying, ‘Man, that caught me by surprise.’”
The band has been catching a lot of listeners by surprise, earning critical praise and a cult following for the raw beauty of the 2014 album “Struggle Pretty” and the new “Let a Lover Drown You,” which was produced by Grammy winner John Paul White.
With a seemingly simple concept — two guys, one guitar, one voice — the talented duo has tapped into a raw power and an unadorned beauty in its compositions. Baxter and Jahnke are undaunted by the seeming limitations of using just one voice and one instrument.
“I bristle at hearing that there are restraints,” Baxter said. “I desperately want to prove that there aren’t any.”
Music was a hobby for the pair until just two years ago. The former University of Texas roommates had been playing together since school — Jahnke on acoustic guitar and Baxter singing. With fulltime jobs, they toured around Texas as Penny & Sparrow on weekends and made recordings for their friends and family.
But the duo’s stripped-down take on folk had started to catch on, earning the band national buzz, calling them to bigger tours and a growing fan base.
“We didn’t set out to make it,” Baxter explained. “We literally only did this for the fun. And then people who weren’t blood relatives of ours started buying it, and we were like, ‘Oh, we can do this full-time now. How great is that?’”
Tonight’s show is the last of three concerts in the Wheeler Opera House’s inaugural On the Rise series, which this fall also featured the wild 19-piece collective Vaud & the Villians and the gospel singer Liz Vice. The curated series of up-and-comers has been a highlight of the fall offseason in Aspen. Wheeler Director Gena Buhler has been encouraged by the response and hopes to expand the series in years to come.
“People were like, ‘OK, we get it — we just have to trust you,’” Buhler said after the Vaud & the Villians show drew a crowd of a few hundred. “I think we’re off to something really special with this new fall series.”
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