Sam Baker at Dingwalls (London, UK – Nov. 10, 2014)
“Dear Sam, dear Sam, I thought of you today / you were riding a train and it was safe,” sang Carrie Elkin as she conveyed, so elegantly, her feelings for Sam Baker. Baker is, and yet isn’t, defined by the horrific effects he suffered when he was a victim of a bomb blast in 1986. He was aboard a train travelling to Machu Picchu and, in a split second, his life changed forever.
Baker found a way to let go of all the bitterness he felt and, in doing so, freed himself to enjoy a different life — a life in which the poetry in his writing has touched many people in such profound ways. Listening to audience reactions during tonight’s show I heard expressions such as “beautiful”, “moving” and “compelling”, which gives you an indication of the effect his carefully chosen words and acute observations have on people.
The darkly curtained stage was framed with strings of fairy lights and made an attractive setting for Baker and his accompanists Chip Dolan (keyboards, accordion and guitar) and Elkin (vocals, accordion and guitar). Together they charmed the audience with songs taken from Baker’s albums as well as two new, unrecorded songs — “Peace Out” and “Moses in the Reeds”. The latter was a co-write with Baker’s friend Mary Gauthier. Both of these featured Baker on vocals with Dolan providing accompaniment on guitar.
The first set drew to a close with “Ditch”, a song that was in Rolling Stone‘s Top 100 in 2013; the magazine wrote that “Ditch” contained the best gratuitous reference to Taylor Swift!
Opening the second set, Baker took the stage alone to perform “Steel” from his debut album Mercy. He introduced it by recounting the story of the bombing, the injuries he suffered, and how once the first line of the song — “Sitting on a train to Machu Picchu, a passenger car explodes” — came to him he was, at last, able to articulate and find a way to describe the events. I imagine that helped the mental healing process. How he has come through, how he has survived, and how he has become an inspiration is genuinely heart-warming.
Dolan and Elkin re-joined him, lightening the mood as the interplay between the trio brought smiles to many faces. At Baker’s shows, your emotional response moves from laughter to tears, sometimes in an instant. It’s difficult to put into words, something so visceral but you only have to observe the faces of the audience to gauge the kind of reaction his story telling evokes. His songs capture whole lifetimes in just three minutes. His characters, with all their flaws, come to life and although many struggle there is often hope in their stories. It’s the tiny details that are Baker’s particular trademark. Writing of the highest order
Immediately after performing “Broken Fingers”, the trio segued into Elkin’s song “Dear Sam” and that pairing worked very, very effectively. Finishing with “Go In Peace”, a gentle farewell the resultant applause brought Baker, Dolan, and Elkin back for two encore songs – “Pretty World” which celebrates the beauty in life, and “Truale”, an audience sing along.
Simple but complex. Laughter and tears. Sadness and joy. Always life affirming – that’s Sam Baker!
‘You’ve found a way to live free in the mess and you’ve found a way to break bread with the rest…’
Photo credit: Jeff Goldberg