Sam Baker is far from your average artist. Older in years and gruffer in voice than many of his contemporaries, the beauty of these songs is not in how they sound but in what they have to say.In some respects, there is no better artist to spend the tenth anniversary of the passing of Johnny Cash with. It’s a drinking man’s show. A thinking man’s show.
Though soft spoken on stage, there’s no mincing of words in the songs and we’re straight into controversial topics of ‘Palestine’ and ‘White Heat’ before tackling racism, slavery, hard times, depression and all the despair and despondency of ‘Cotton’. The song itself is prefaced with a few bars of the ‘Dixie’ section of ‘An American Trilogy’. Tellingly we meander into Baker’s own work before we get to the “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” of the ‘Battlehymn of the Republic’. There’s no redemption here. No hands in the air. No saviour and no grace. It makes for easy listening to tough messages.
Photo by Gerry McNally Photography
Baker shows no shame in name-checking his influences and musical mentors. His forays into blues and jazz signatures are nods to the likes of Coltrane but it’s that old-world weary, Gospel-infused blues that harks back most to the works of Leadbelly or Guthrie. On ‘Migrants’, there’s a clear tip of the hat to Guthrie’s ‘Deportees’. Almost a century apart, the themes are the same. Death and devastation for want of a drink of clean water. They want a better life. They get twelve lines beside a newspaper ad for shoes. The subtle accordion lends an almost gyspy feel to the tune and maybe is a little reminder that migrants and deportees are more than just an American problem. We only have to look around our own streets. The times they aren’t a-changin’.
We’re uncomfortable with the themes. They prick the conscience. They raise doubts and questions. We raise whiskey glasses and get that metaphorical punch in the gut when Carrie Elkin’s backing vocals hit unexpected harmonies and soar off heavenwards. It takes us until the refrain of ‘Odessa’ with its hymn-like refrain of “hard times come again no more” to experience that little glimmer of hope. It’s not quite a road to Damascus moment but you know that Baker, who survived a 1986 terrorist attack, knows hard times, and knows more than most that this, right here, is what gets most of us through.
‘Slots’, ‘The Tattooed Woman’ and the trailing choruses of ‘Isn’t Love Great’ leave us teetering on the edge of some other worldly chasm. Jesus on one side, Jack Daniels on the other, and we’re firmly rooted somewhere between with a bunch of old Tom Waits records and a vague hope that maybe everything will be alright.