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Sam Baker and Carrie Elkin

The Met Bury, Lancs
Sunday 1 November 2015

Anyone attending a Sam Baker gig without prior knowledge of Sam might wonder just what they were witnessing. The man on stage describes himself as the worst guitarist to ever stand on a stage and his talking style of singing isn't going to get many choirs interested. Most of 'the rules' of stagecraft are broken or just simply ignored. The conversation on stage goes beyond the absurd and then a bit further. He can and does spontaneously go off on a tangent that only the best  stand up comedians can match. What he does better than most though, is write stories and poetry in the form of songs. He has been compared favourably to John Prine and Townes van Zandt. His minimalist guitar style and voice perfectly suit his songs. For the uninitiated Sam is a Texan. In 1986 he was on a train in Peru. A terrorist bomb  planted in Sam's carriage exploded leaving Sam severely injured, killing many of the people around him. In particular a young German boy whose mother and father were killed instantly but the boy, sadly took hours to die. After 5 days during which time gangrene and kidney failure had set in Sam was flown back to the States, receiving numerous operations to  repair a severed artery, brain damage, blown in eardrums  and severe damage to his left hand . He had to learn to speak and do most things again. He couldn't remember words. His speech patterns differ from most peoples to this day. For a while Sam sank into pain meds and alcohol. Writing and a realisation that life is a gift led Sam to release MERCY, the first of a trilogy of CDs in 2004. MERCY featured the song Steel. It was this song that started his writing career with the lines 'Sitting on the train to Machu Picchu, the passenger car explodes, not enough time to say goodbye, not enough time to know'. The second CD, PRETTY WORLD featured Broken Fingers, the story of the young boy and Sam's memories 'Forget his face?, of course I don't, etched like a crystal vase, these broken fingers, some things don't heal, I can't wake up from a dream, when the dream is real......'

Sam has established a hard core following. When he used Kickstarter to raise funds for his last CD he probably broke all records in how quickly the money was contributed. Money was refused after two weeks into the campaign. Sam has toured solo, as a duo and also a trio but tonight he was accompanied by long time friend Carrie Elkin, wife of great song writer Danny Schmidt. Unlike Sam, Carrie's voice has tremendous range and is so powerful she hardly needs a microphone. The tour was titled Love Duets. With a few exceptions most songs were probably not what most people would regard as love duets. They opened with a cover of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris's Love Hurts. For the most part the instrumentals were supplied by Sam. Sam taught himself to play the guitar 'the wrong way around' as his fingers are so gnarled on his left hand he couldn't make the chords but could hold a plectrum in that hand. Needs dictated that he reverse hands to play. It's a very sparse style of playing but Sam's songs are also sparse in words but so rich in imagery and storytelling that the guitar style and even the halting singing works perfectly. Sam has a tendency to go off track and I mean really WAY off track. Sometimes I don't think even he knows where his thought processes are going. His on stage companions are used to it and go with the flow. Any other course of action would require therapy at the end of the tour. That was definitely the case tonight but it is that aspect of Sam's shows that most diehard fans love.

Only one new song in the first set Daddy's Lucky Little Charm, a Vietnam vet story about, amongst other things, the adrenalin rush of warfare. Two songs that I really rate as love songs featured in the set. Waves, a great audience favourite, is a real tear jerker making people reach for their tissues many times. Isn't Love Great is a touching, humourous genuine love song featuring  a woman with a limp whom her husband calls a gimp. The set finished after a strange conversation involving gingerbread houses, unicorns and platinum squirrels (I said he can go off track!) with the beautifully performed but immensely sad Odessa which is always preceded by Stephen Foster's 1854 Civil War song Hard Times. Standing several feet away from the microphone Carrie sings Hard Times before and after Sam sings the song. Odessa is particularly haunting story about a rich oil boy who kills the girl he loves in a car crash and leads a very lonely life afterwards. They finished the set promising us that we would think the first set happy when we heard the second.

Even sadder was what they promised and they certainly delivered on the promise. However, despite the promise everyone came back for the second set. Another cover to start, this time John Prine's Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness. A beautiful song, although possibly over used as it features in many artists set list. Even the upbeat songs Ditch and Moses In The Reeds concerned a crazy wife and drug addiction. There were elements of humour in Ditch as the crazy wife thought she was Taylor Swift's twin, having been separated at birth. Ditch and Orphan got as close to a sing along as the show allowed. The levity of Ditch and between song banter contrasted dramatically as Sam told his story as a precursor to Broken Fingers. I have heard Broken Fingers many times but somehow tonight it seemed to suck the energy from the room. It is an immensely personal and sad song that, along with Waves, audiences will never allow Sam to drop from his shows. Carrie took solo vocals on I Know It's Hard and lead vocal on a beautiful but very sad rendition of Dylan's Tomorrow Is A Long Time. Two well deserved encores neatly flowed together Pretty World and Go In Peace. Sad songs they were but never miserable and always spiritually uplifting.

For anyone interested in hearing more about Sam and his songs I can recommend the wonderful interview by Terry Gross on NPR accessed by the link below. If you get the chance to see him live it is an experience you will probably never regret.

Keith Belcher
Northern Sky