Penny & Sparrow spread Christmas cheer

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Clad in festive Christmas sweaters and using nothing but their voices and a guitar, folk duo Penny & Sparrow — otherwise known as Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke — entertained Calvin students and community members with a memorable live performance for the second year in a row.

The concert took place on Thursday, Dec. 1 at the Ladies Literary Club downtown. Local indie/folk rock band Walking for Foxes opened the show, which began at 8 p.m.

The event was organized by Calvin’s Student Activities Office (SAO), who became acquainted with Penny & Sparrow when the pair opened for Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors in October 2015 during a performance at Calvin’s Covenant Fine Arts Center.  

It isn’t uncommon for the SAO to invite an opening act back for a headlining show after an initial positive experience, according to Ken Heffner, the SAO’s director of student activities.

“It was nice to be surprised by their performance last year and be able to invite them back this year,” Heffner said. “The expectations were high, but they succeeded with the first song.”

The concert was in support of the band’s album “Let a Lover Drown You,” which was released in March and produced with the help of former Civil Wars member John Paul White. In addition to songs from that album and others from their self-released albums, the concert featured covers from their album of Christmas songs released in November.  

Penny & Sparrow’s intimate sound and emotional lyrics have appealed to listeners and allowed them to accumulate quite a following in the last few years.  

Sydney Hoek, a Calvin sophomore who attended the show, found these qualities appealing and said she was a fan by the second song.

“The concert was an emotional rollercoaster, but in the best way,” Hoek said. “[Baxter and Jahnke] are such personable, real and talented performers.”

While Penny & Sparrow’s music is “raw and full of stories,” Hoek said the pair managed to keep things light hearted in their interactions with the audience.

“It made for such a neat balance of emotion and entertainment,” Hoek said. “I would see them again in a heartbeat.”

One of the goals of the SAO is to provide college students with the opportunity of encountering live music. The organization seeks to combine Calvin’s ideals of being agents of renewal with unique concert experiences to help “connect the dots of the Christian experience,” according to Heffner.  

Penny & Sparrow serve as a rare combination of artists who are Christians yet do not create explicitly worshipful songs. In a Q&A period following the performance, Baxter told the audience that he and Jahnke seek to create art that is appealing across all genres, not just contemporary Christian. Baxter said that people tend to be too careful about the way that they express the Lord and talk about their faith, and he didn’t want to play it safe.

It’s the willingness to take risks that has allowed the band to garner attention. The SAO seeks artists “who are on to something,” as Heffner puts it, or “probing subject matter that is new.”

From their unique sound to their bold convictions, Penny & Sparrow are doing just that.