Sam Baker at the Treehouse Café (Bainbridge Island, WA – April 10)
“It’s a great gift just to be alive on this Earth.”
And with that uplifting affirmation, Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter Sam Baker eased into his haunting song “Broken Fingers” before a hushed audience at the Treehouse Café on Bainbridge Island, WA.
The song is about Baker’s fateful train ride to Machu Picchu in 1986. The terrorist group Shining Path had planted a red suitcase stuffed with stolen dynamite on the luggage rack above his head. The bomb exploded, and Baker witnessed the deaths of members of a family of German tourists, including a 9-year-old boy.
The blast blew off the top of his hand and left him with hearing loss. Baker’s story of survival and the fragility of life are there in his songs, many of which explore the darker corners of humanity.
All his master song-crafting skills were on display during a recent swing through the Northwest, including the April 10 concert at the Treehouse and a show the night before at the Phinney Neighborhood Center Concert Hall in Seattle, where concert goers filled all the folding chairs and shouted out requests of their favorite Baker songs.
Accompanying Baker was Chip Dolan of the Austin band Grouchy Like Riley. Dolan added virtuosity on the piano, accordion, and acoustic guitar and also backed Baker on vocals.
At both venues, Baker carried on a light banter between songs, often telling stories with the easy delivery and timing of a standup comedian. Baker complained to Dolan that his show was not full of downer material. And to prove his point, Baker read a poem about a deer that got hung upside down in a barbed-wire fence, from the perspective of the deer.
Baker is a minimalist as a musician, singer, and lyricist. But with sparse words and notes, he packs in a lot, exploring a range of emotions, from romance and loneliness to regret and redemption.
In “A Song to Himself (Juarez)” from his 2007 album Pretty World, there’s a broken down old man in a Mexican whorehouse with Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die” haunting his mind.
Baker also performed “Odessa,” also from Pretty World, a tune woven around Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.” The song tells the story of the son of an oil baron who spent his daddy’s money and took what he thought was his, only to grow old haunted by the consequences.
Not too many years ago, Baker was building apartments, a job he confessed he wasn’t very good at because his heart wasn’t in it. Thankfully, his heart is into music and songwriting. And it turns out Baker used his time wisely toiling away on those dead-end jobsites as an observer of the crazy, messy, hopeful lives of his fellow construction workers.
In the Treehouse Café’s curtain-covered performance room, Baker sang “Iron” from his 2004 album Mercy, about a hard-drinking ironworker who survives a scare and decides to straighten up. He also played “Ditch,” from his 2013 breakout album Say Grace:
I am crawling back down in the ditch today
I got a crazy-ass wife got a baby on the way
Glad I got work
Glad I got pay
I’m crawling back down in the ditch today
The crew’s a bunch of stoners
The boss is a shit
Be a miracle if one of us
Does not get hit
By a ton of pipe
On a cheap ass chain
Swinging round the sky
In this pouring ass rain
Baker paid tribute to another workingman, with a spoken-word performance of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.”
Imagine, Baker said, a conversation between Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski, before he got into his second six-pack. The topic: what Haggard tune to play. In walks Jack Kerouac, who proclaims it has to be “Mama Tried.”
Yea, that’s how Baker riffs on stage.