Recorded live in Buffalo, NY, in July 2018, Sam Baker's first live album is a pared-back solo effort.
I first came across Baker when a friend put an extraordinary track of his my way: a song called Go In Peace, which I could not get out of my head. This led me to checking out his past, and I discovered the astonishing story of how on the eve of his 32nd birthday, he was critically injured during a terrorist train bombing in Peru in 1986 that killed those sitting opposite him and so badly maimed him that he was at death’s door for several weeks and had a major brain injury, blown eardrums, nearly lost his leg which needed many operations, and maybe worst of all to a musician, lost part of his left hand, meaning it was a major struggle to play the guitar again.
I bet he never reckoned back then that he would produce a considerable body of work, and at 65 would still be going strong. What a triumph over adversity: he is a shining example to us all to not give in. That said, he was in a dark place for several years – with major mental scars to match his physical ones - and hit the bottle and the pills. But thank God he came up safe on the other side. And was able to write of such a struggle in a song like Broken Fingers, the penultimate track here.
This new live CD has no frills: it's just him and a guitar, and occasional harmonica, and a piece of wood for him to tap his foot on. He is basically reprising some of the best of his back catalogue. It oozes authenticity: even down to the added verisimilitude of not editing-out feedback distortions. The voice is redolent of that of Tom Waits...with perhaps a Dolby System in his throat to soak up the gravel.
Push me to be brutally honest and I would have to say that although his songs have clear merit and told British me quite a bit about life in the flyover states of America (rather than life in glitzy Hollywood or frenetic New York City), I longed for him to have another musician to add a bit of light and shade into proceedings, like I recall seeing a few years ago a YouTube performance of his song Snow (reprised on this CD too), where he is accompanied by a brilliant pianist.
Don’t get me wrong: Sam really delivers it here on this CD. (Indeed maybe he cannot fail, for it is a very strong song about Boston looking beautiful covered in a fresh, heavy snowfall.) But I pined for that performance with that virtuoso pianist: after I have written this review, I will check if it is still there.
Would I buy this album? Yes I would. Every track captured my interest. And one track stood out: and that was Odessa. Let me immediately now identify myself as a dunce.
For the truth is that when I saw the title I thought of Battleship Potemkin and the Ukrainian city where Eisenstein had filmed his famous Odessa Steps sequence. But very fast, I could see that this song was set in an Odessa in America...and the only Odessa I had been to in America was when I walked the boardwalk from Coney Island to Brighton Beach (the latter being better known as Little Odessa...!!). But then the lyric talked of crude oil...and I figured we must be talking Texas. And so followed 20 minutes via Wikipedia with me checking out a city I had previously known nothing about. My loss, I am sure: but I feel that much wiser now.
However, that is by-the-by: the real thing about this song is it tells a helluva tale about a rich boy with no need to work, frittering away his life on countless affairs, but never settling down and having a family...not least because as a young man he had rolled his Corvette and killed the girl he was with. And all his life her face haunted him.
As Sam puts it...” Well he's an old man now / Lives on his dead daddy's place / Never took a wife / Gonna die without a trace”
Gee...how that last line chilled me to the bone. Why?... well, the wife and myself have chosen to have no kids, and we will probably die without a trace too.
I suddenly felt very sad.
But then I thought of two people who definitely did leave a trace: Pol Pot and Adolf Hitler...!! And I cheered up thinking that there may be something attractive about dying in anonymity.
This fine song by the way is topped and tailed by Sam singing the start and end of Stephen Foster’s wonderful song Hard Times Come Again No More. I don’t know why this works, but it does. It puts a solid imprimatur upon a rather good song, and raises it up another level. Good thinking, Mr Baker.
Sam Baker is touring the UK in January/February 2020.
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Sam Baker (unknown/website).