Sam Baker, Needingworth, Cambridgeshire and London (UK) September 8th and 10th 2013
When the dates for Sam Baker’s UK tour were published I was disappointed to see that the furthest south he would be playing was in London. Living near Brighton, I can get up to London easily enough but like, if possible, to go to more than just one show during a tour. And so it was that I found myself at the ‘Rhythm at the River’ promoted show at a hotel in Cambridgeshire, about 120 miles from home, on a Sunday night. The tickets included a buffet supper – Baker would play one set, we would break for supper and then he would play a second set.
The evening was sold out and as people arrived, I sat in the bar enjoying a large glass of wine and looking forward to hearing songs from the new album SAY GRACE which has been receiving glowing reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.
Opening with a arrangement of both Palestine 1 and 11 from his previous release COTTON Baker was accompanied tonight by Carrie Elkin (vocals, guitar, clarinet and accordion) and Chip Dolan (keyboards and accordion). The haunting beauty of Elkin’s delivery when she commenced with the first verse of ‘1’ had a woman sitting to the side of me, in tears from the outset. Now that is not an uncommon sight to witness at a Baker gig but it is so early on…oh my, what were we in for this evening?
Following with White Heat the trio proceeded with six more songs from the latest album; the new material is ‘trademark Baker’ – extremely observational with as much left unsaid as said. The attention to detail, the most (I’m sure) painstaking choice (and omission) of words, the intonation and phrasing, paint pictures and take you into a world where the ordinary becomes extraordinary – in essence, Baker at his best.
During the interval break, overhearing conversations it was apparent that many of the attendees were not familiar with Baker’s music. For those of you who have seen him play a live show, you’ll know what I mean, when, I say, to borrow from a writer friend, John Conquest, ‘there are Americana songwriters in every conceivable degree of talent, craft, gravitas, creativity and style—and then there’s Sam Baker’.
He really is a one-off.
After the break, the second set started with Feast, a song inspired by Yeats’ poem The Second Coming and then tour manager Rebecca Kemp complemented Elkin’s vocals on Sweet Hour of Prayer. More from the new album including a request for Isn’t Love Great indicating that of course there were fans in the audience and another request for older material – Orphan. Closing out with Go In Peace Baker and Co weren’t going to get away without an encore so two more – Change and Pretty World – ended the evening.
It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Baker’s music – I’ve seen him many times here in the UK, in mainland Europe and in America. Tonight’s audience was probably the most resterved I’ve witnessed at a Baker show. Some long standing fans outweighed by ‘first timers’ and this seemed to tell in the respectfully polite reception – gigs do take on the personality of the audience and I’m used to seeing much more interaction with the crowd. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy it – I did and so did others but it seemed to lack the energy I associate with this man who can in turn break your heart one minute and have you screaming with laugher the next.
What a difference an audience makes…the London show the day after next, at a pretty packed out Bush Hall was similar in that the set list did not vary much from the previous gig but the audience, was, to coin a phrase ‘really up for it!’
Baker has toured here every year since first coming over in 2007 and always plays a London show. This was a new venue for him but not a new audience. I saw so many music loving friends tonight that I actually remarked ‘it’s like a family reunion’ which was a sentiment shared by Baker as he recognised people in the audience and asked them to make sure they stayed on after the performance so that he could speak with them. That’s the measure of the man. He paid tribute to the BBC’s Bob Harris who first played a track (Iron) from the debut album MERCY, on his radio show in 2005. This was the catalyst for setting Baker on the road to becoming a full time singer songwriter. The previous day he’d recorded a session for Harris which will be broadcast next month.
This London show was the seventh of the tour and the three of them (Baker, Dolan and Elkin) really hit their stride. In fact, as the first set drew to a close Dolan remarked ‘this is too slick’ meaning that they were completely on track with the set list and that no ‘disasters’ had befallen them. After a short interval, the trio returned and just continued to captivate everyone – it was clearly evident from their body language and responses that they were having the best of times on stage – their joy in singing to such a receptive audience was so apparent. Go In Peace ended the second set but it was not the end of the evening. A standing ovation, a crowd demanding ‘more’ brought them back with Baker tripping on stage (reprising a story he’d told earlier about falling flat on his face at the Glasgow gig!) and finishing with the same two songs that had closed proceedings at the other show.
After this performance, true to his word, Baker and indeed Dolan and Elkin all spent time talking with fans, signing albums and answering the question ‘when are you coming back?’ They’ll be back next year, maybe together, maybe solo, maybe with other musicians but whatever format they choose to come back in they know that there will always be a warm welcome for them in London town. Jela Webb