Introducing Sam Baker to the Lewes audience, promoter Jamie Freeman from Union Music called him "inimitable", and that word is a perfect description of the Texas-based singer-songwriter. Baker came late to music and live performance. He "picked up a pen" as a way of trying to come to terms with the horrific deaths of fellow passengers and his own life-threatening injuries as a result of a bomb exploding in the overhead luggage rack of the train they were travelling on to Machu Picchu. That was in 1986; Baker, then 32 years old, survived, but to this day bears the scars both physical and psychological.
Releasing Mercy in 2004 -- a dozen songs with one word titles -- his minimalist storytelling style resonated with BBC’s Bob Harris, who played tracks from the album on his radio show and launched Baker’s music career. Two more albums -- Pretty World in 2007 and Cotton in 2009 -- completed the trilogy, not only mapping his road to recovery but also introducing us to a cast of characters, each notable in their own way, who stay with you long after the song has been sung.
Say Grace (2013) is Baker’s latest album and was sent out into the world with the support of a Kickstarter campaign. Backers pledged more than double the $20,000 sought -- that’s how loyal a fan base he’s built up over the past decade. It’s fair to say that he’s still better known in the U.K. than in his native U.S., but that is changing.
Tonight, in Lewes, in front of a packed room, he opened, unusually, with a cover: Johnny Cash’s "Drive On". He then segued into his own composition, "Slots", before explaining that he would be playing two sets. The first would feature "songs that pop into my head" and the second would feature requests. Well, that was the cue for many to shout out their favourite title. So much so, that he asked for someone to write them down for him, as there were far too many for him to remember.
The highlight of the first set was a stripped-down version of "Cotton". It’s the first time for quite a few tours that he’s been unaccompanied. With just his voice, guitar and occasional harmonica, the lyrical elegance of his writing shines, diamond-like. Baker is so precise with his selection of words, what he doesn’t say is as important as what he does say. The silences and stillness are central to this man’s body of work.
Baker ended the first set with "Ditch", voted one of the top 100 songs in Rolling Stone’s year-end poll – at heart a love song, told from the perspective of a construction worker who has a "crazy-ass wife". Another character whose story rings true in these continually challenging economic times.
Back for the second set, with postcard in hand, featuring song requests including one for "Felt", which alluded to the banter Baker had exchanged earlier with a lady sitting in the front row. The poor woman was used as a foil as he chatted and joked between songs. His mind races all over the place as he uses self-deprecating humour to lighten the haunting images evoked in many of his songs.
Tour manager Rebecca Kemp joined him for "Iron", singing the part of the co-dependant wife. If that isn’t in her job description, then it ought to be -- what a sport she was! "Thursday" had been the first request shouted out and, much to my surprise, Baker reached for an electric guitar. As I was chatting with him after the show, he told me that it was the first time he’d taken an electric guitar on tour and is using it because it helps him to hear what he’s playing. He’s partially deaf and suffers from tinnitus. The electric guitar was also used on the heart-breaking "Angel Hair", on "Juarez", and also on "Broken Fingers", prior to which he spoke movingly about the little boy who had lost his life in the bombing.
Up against a curfew, he had permission from Freeman, on sound, to continue. He closed out the set with a wish for everyone to "get home safe", with the hymn-like "Go In Peace". A rousing ovation encouraged him to come back for one more – "Truale", which has become a much loved audience participation finale to an evening of Baker’s music.
Inimitable means unique, peerless, consummate – yes, that’s Sam Baker!
Drive On (Johnny Cash)
Iron (with Rebecca Kemp)
Isn’t Love Great
Go In Peace
(Photo credit: Richard Webb, 2014)