Still physically affected by a terrorist attack in Peru, the American songwriter nevertheless infuses his songs with humour
On a rainy Thursday evening at the Real Music Club in Belfast's Errigle Inn, a capacity crowd turn out to see Sam Baker, one of the finest singer-songwriters of his generation.
For those not familiar with Baker or his music, his halting style of singing may seem like an affectation, but there is a tragic explanation behind the originality of this 50-something Texan.
While travelling in Peru at age 32, Baker took a train ride that would forever change his life. Minutes into his journey, a bomb exploded on the train. Initially, seven people died, including a German boy and his parents who were sitting with Baker in the carriage.
The bomb, planted by Peruvian terrorists who went under the collective moniker of The Shining Path, left Baker with lasting damage – deafness, a mangled hand, a mangled leg and brain damage. Both his speech and memory were affected.
Not only did Baker have to relearn to play the guitar, but he had to build his memory back up. Words are still occasionally unremembered, and you can hear his thought processes as he sings on record and in concert.
Tonight Baker is joined on stage by fellow Texan singer Carrie Elkin – sporting a lovely second-hand dress that she picked up in Belfast’s Rusty Zip clothing store on a shopping trip that day – and pianist Chip Dolan.
Bathed in orange stage light, Baker is a lively presence and looks years younger than he is, despite his grey hair and the glasses he now needs to wear in order to lip read – his hearing continues to deteriorate and he suffers from permanent tinnitus.
As keyboards raise the spectre of a church hall, Baker kicks the first of two sets off with 'Palestine', a song from his 2009 album Cotton. Elkin provides backing vocals to this tale of religion, Revival tents and the devil on the run in Anderson County, Texas.
The characters in Baker’s songs inhabit a similar moral landscape to those in Raymond Carver’s short stories, with Baker’s southern states replacing the urban sprawl of Carver’s California tales. Baker’s song lyrics also display a mastery of minimalism, perhaps a more welcome consequence of his injuries.
The majority of the first set comes from Cotton and new album Say Grace. Four years in the making, the record widens Baker’s musical palette to include Mexican folk music (on the tragic 'Migrants') as well as tango. A gospel sensibility runs through the songs, just as tragedy often does in the lives of the songs’ characters.
The musicianship of Elkin and Dolan adds flesh to the bare bones of Baker’s melodies, but at times they threaten to overpower the delicacy of the older songs. Anyone who has seen Baker perform solo can appreciate the power that he somehow puts into the space between words.
Lyrically as well as musically, Baker’s songs have grown in the four years between albums. He is still a fine storyteller, though. The stream-of-consciousness effort 'White Heat' takes its cue from the classic James Cagney film noir of that name, where Cagney plays mother-obsessed hoodlum Cody Jarrett. The chorus – sung with Elkin – plays like a lullaby sung by the ghost of Ma Jarrett following her son’s fiery end.
An a capella recital of the old southern anthem 'Dixie' by Elkin seques into 'Cotton', which tells the story of a cotton-picking father who walks away from his wife and son, leaving them to fend for themselves and pray to a God who may or may not be listening.
As Baker retunes his guitar, Elkin talks up the wonders of local eatery Boojum’s burritos. 'The best I ever had,' she tells the audience. 'I said so on Facebook. I got hate mail from back in Texas. I can’t go home now.'
Elkin serves as an onstage foil for Baker. They spend much of the evening lightly flirting with one another. They laugh easily together and include the audience in their fun. The sensuous Argentinian tango of 'Button to Button' is accompanied by (very) rudimentary clarinet from Elkin. 'She’s been playing since she was a little girl,' Baker informs us. 'I’ve been playing for a week,' Elkin corrects him.
There is humour, too, in the new songs. 'Ditches' is about a man who works in drainage ditches with a 'crazy ass wife' at home who thinks she and Taylor Swift were separated at birth. The narrator disabuses her of the notion. 'Earth to wife, wife to earth,' he tells her.
After a first set clocking in at just under an hour, the musicians return following a 15 minute break. Again the set leans heavily towards Baker’s two most recent albums. Throughout, audience members call out for personal favourites from earlier records. Elkin explains that they’re hoping to let the audience hear songs they’ve not heard live before.
Baker gives in, eventually, and sings perhaps his most affecting ballad, 'Waves', from 2004’s Mercy album. The song, which tells of how a husband copes with the death of his wife of 50 years, is a masterpiece of lyrical compactness. It is heartbreaking in its deceptive simplicity, the last verse following the man as 'he walks down to the ocean / bends to touch the water, kneels to pray / He writes her name in the sand / Waves wash it away'.
Time passing is a constant in these songs, as is love. 'Isn’t Love Great' is as fine a love song as has ever been written, despite (or because) of its eccentricity. A man and woman meet and marry. She’s beautiful, though she walks with a limp. She calls him 'fat man' he calls her his 'gimp'.
The set concludes with 'Go in Peace', from the new album. A secular hymn, would be a beautiful way to end an evening filled with humanity and grace. Given a standing ovation, encores are – inevitably – forthcoming. Introducing what is the final number, 'Pretty Road', Baker explains that 'if you have to explain a song, that song ain’t no good'.
As those fortunate enough to have experienced this wonderful evening would agree, Baker’s songs need no explanation. They are as true as a lover’s heart.
The next Real Music Club gig features American artist Israel Nash Gripka performing in the Errigle Inn, Belfast on October 3.