This gig was a perfect example of why I would always prefer to be in a small intimate venue (like the Seamus Ennis Centre) than in a much larger location even with a commercially bigger act brings in a bigger production. It is the economy of scale of course, but that scale balances when you are at close quarters with a performer.
On this occasion Sam Baker is accompanied by Chip Dolan a seasoned sideman (and recording artist in his own right) playing electric piano and accordion and singer/songwriter Carrie Elkin. (Incidentally Elkin's last album Call It My Garden was recorded in Sam Baker's house). This trio had an obvious ease with each other that encouraged their playing and how they delivered the songs.
Elkin mainly added harmony and counterpoint vocals but she also played clarinet (an instrument that she only took up in the last few weeks) and guitar. Dolan excelled on the piano and on the accordion.
At the start of the show Sam Baker tuned his guitar through his tuner but wryly told us that he didn't need it as he only had to look at the expression on the face of either of his companions to know if he was in tune or not. Throughout the evening there was many asides and stories that enhanced the evening. An evening that included songs from across his four albums. Among them Slots, Pretty World, Change and, naturally, from the new album came Say Grace, Ditch, White Heat, Migrants. The latter a song that featured to great effect Dolan's accordion and was based on a story that Baker had read and was in the same vein as his hero Woody Guthrie's classic song Deportees. In other words an event that only barely gets mentioned in the press as the victims in the song were themselves migrants, Isn't Love Grand, The Tattooed Woman and the closing song Go In Peace.
He did a trio of songs that related to love, something he said he doesn't do that often, jokingly telling us "when you hear it you'll know why". Like all his material it took us through a window and into the lives of the song's subjects. Tattoos and teenage abuse were more often on his radar he commented. As are the terms of endearment between couples which may not actually be what the words spoken seemed to mean. There is a great deal of humour in his songs that balances with the occasional more tragic consequence that reveal themselves as a particular story unfolds.
Anyone who knows Sam Baker's music knows that he would not likely pass any "formal" audition voice test. He has a limited voice range. But that voice is who Sam Baker is and with that voice he connects. In fact his delivery, like that of a poet, allows every word to be savoured and understood. His crafted songs tell of hard times full of, more often than not, people who are not hard. They're making the best of their lives. He is an astute observer of life. Pictures painted with words, which here (and on record) are enhanced by the contributions of his fellow performers. Elkin's crystal voice is a delight throughout while Dolan's piano playing is also integral and when he delivers a solo his skill and dexterity are obvious.
At one point tour manager Rebecca joins Elkin for a short unaccompanied song. Another vocal highlight was provided by the audience who joined in on several occasions and completely broke down the barrier between the artist and audience. Not that Baker ever allows one in any real sense. He never puts himself above his fans. After the show he allowed the audience as much time as they wanted to say hello, and goodbye.
Review by Stephen Rapid. Photograph by Ronnie Norton