Sam Baker (UK Tour – Brighton, Buckingham and London September 8th – 11th 2011)
In 2005 Bob Harris played Iron from Sam Baker’s 2004 debut MERCY, on his BBC Radio 2 programme, to much audience acclaim. That single act set in motion a turn of events, which at that time could never have been anticipated by Baker. He was then still working ‘the day job’ and having to overcome crippling stage-fright when playing the occasional open mic show back home in Austin, Texas.
A significant spike in the sales of MERCY as a direct result of that air-play coupled with word-of-mouth recommendations from those who bought it, saw the album become an underground hit and Baker’s sparse poetical style compared favourably with Townes Van Zandt, John Prine and Guy Clark.
MERCY was initially written as a single piece of art in which Baker addresses the 1986 bomb blast that nearly ended his life, the immediate stillness of the aftermath and how ‘everyone is at the mercy of another one’s dream’.
Encouraged by the response to MERCY, in 2007 Baker released PRETTY WORLD, which explores gratitude, grace and beauty. His economy of words and use of silence, combine to convey such affecting imagery, which is exquisite yet at times quite harrowing.
Following up in 2009 with the release of COTTON Baker completed the trilogy. COTTON takes as its motif, forgiveness, and whilst not stated overtly, the underlying message recognises how an inability to forgive encumbers the victim more than the perpetrator.
With MERCY receiving such interest and acclaim from UK listeners, it was surely only a matter of time before Baker crossed the Atlantic for a tour and in December 2007 he embarked upon what has since become an annual visit. Sometimes solo and sometimes with an accompanist he has continued to draw audiences at venues up and down the land. The current 16 date tour of the UK and Ireland included three shows – Brighton on the 8th, Buckingham on the 9th and London on the 11th which I was fortunate to attend.
Accompanied by Chip Dolan, a much in demand and versatile musician (piano, accordion and guitar) Baker opened each night with Baseball – actually that’s not altogether accurate. Backstage at the Brighton venue was a grand piano upon which sat some sheet music – a serendipitous find for Baker who asked Dolan if he could play that particular piece. He could. And did. The introduction to that performance therefore was one of Chopin’s Nocturnes (I’m not a classical music buff so can’t tell you which opus it was) but it can’t be often that a much-anticipated show, from a premier Americana artist, starts off in this vein. It does however give you a measure of Baker’s tender unpredictability.
Interaction with the audience is very much part of Baker’s modus operandi so it was not at all surprising to hear him ask for house lights to be turned up so that he could see beyond the front row. Like a stand–up comedian might do, Baker hones in on something said or someone he recognises, often mishearing (he is completely deaf in his left ear and only has partial hearing in his right) and gently ribs the ‘offender’. It lightens the mood and provides a nice contrast to the shade of much of his hauntingly sad subject matter.
As one might anticipate, his song selection, featured material from all three of his albums but with the last having been released two years ago, there was also a sense of expectation that we might hear some new material. That expectation was fulfilled with three new songs.
Isn’t Love Grand is, as the title implies, a love song. The protagonists are ‘a beautiful woman who walks with a limp’ and her husband, who enjoy a happy marriage ‘four years they’ve been married, not one day of trouble, got two happy boys, good luck, daily double’.
White Heat inspired in part by the James Cagney film of the same name in which Cagney plays a gangster who dies after climbing into a gas storage tank to escape the police. As the police shoot him, Cagney fires into the tank causing it to explode. It seems to be a song about loss ‘where have you gone my love now that I have found my way? Where have you done my love now that I am old and grey?’
Beast takes its inspiration from the penultimate line of Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, which reads ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last’. There are differing interpretations about Yeats’ work and who/what he meant by his ‘beast’ that I couldn’t even make an educated guess about the meaning of this song. It needs to be listened to over and over again, and even then, further explored.
Baker’s new material is quite different from his previous work; Isn’t Love Grand is humorous and draws laughter from the audience whereas White Heat and Beast are less literal and left open to interpretation.
Other highlights from the three shows included the performance of Snow, Steel and Broken Fingers at Brighton. It was probably the first time all three had been performed in one evening. Snow in particular was so moving firstly with Baker explaining how the hate he had for the people who blew up the train he was travelling on, was killing him so he stopped hating and sought to forgive. Secondly, the delicate beauty of Dolan’s work on the piano.
At Buckingham, the opener BettySoo (and Doug Cox) provided vocal harmony on Odessa and Pretty World. She has such an expressive voice. Additionally, joining in for the last two songs (the Christian spiritual I’ll Fly Away and Orphan) were Awna Teixiera and Allison Russell from Po’ Girl.
In London, an unplugged and off stage cover of Six Days on the Road had the audience clapping along in time to the beat with Dolan showcasing his love of boogie-woogie.
A blessing Go in Peace (actually that makes it four new songs), which hopes everyone has a safe journey home, finished the show on two of the three evenings.
There’s no one quite like Baker. He has survived some terrible times and has come through with forgiveness in his heart. Yes, there are some songs that he is unable to talk about but in the main he lays bare the journey he has made since that day in 1986 when he almost died. Jela Webb