Sam Baker McGonigel's Mucky Duck January 17, 2015
Just after he finished the song, "Odessa," about midway through his Saturday-night set at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, songwriter Sam Baker ruminated on just how sad a song it is. So sad, he said, he believed it was on a Rolling Stone list of saddest songs ever about Texas.
"I don't know," said his bandmate Carrie Elkin. "I feel like we have sadder songs than that."
The truth is those songs performed live have the opposite effect of moroseness. A capacity room on hand for Saturday's early show at the Mucky Duck must have left the venue feeling invigorated and alive, because no matter what -- or better yet, who -- the song is about, Baker delivers it with joy and gratitude.
Folks lined up to purchase Baker's CDs after the show and some introduced themselves, saying they'd heard his interview on NPR's Fresh Aire program. Recorded last spring and recently re-run, the chat with Terry Gross was compelling for those who hadn't heard Baker's story.
The short version is that Baker was a victim of a terrorist bomb attack in Peru in the 1980s. He returned to the states to mend from brain and bodily injuries that required multiple surgeries. Some passengers he sat next to on the train that day didn't survive.
Those events fashioned his earliest songs, which didn't appear in recorded form until 20 years later. Those records, Pretty World, Cotton and Mercy, tell the story, in part. But locals are familiar with Baker, who lives in Austin, so he steered clear of the narrative. Saturday's setlist was a generous mix of tunes from the entire catalog, with a bit more emphasis on the newer entries from 2013's Say Grace.
Tenderness can be a difficult thing to find in the hustle-and-bustle of this place, but Baker tried a little on his Houston fans. Accompanied by vocalist Elkin and fellow Austinite Chip Dolan on keys, he moseyed through 15 songs that, at their heart, are really poems. Even the ones that begin "as a lump in the throat," to paraphrase Robert Frost, become something life-affirming.
How difficult might it be to find the beauty of life in an offering like "Cotton," which is stark with abandonment themes? Or some sense of comfort from the afore-noted, "Odessa," which tells a tale of privilege, death and heartbreak?
It's not so hard to do if you appreciate the poetic form. A song like "Waves," from Mercy, sounds gloomy. Its opening lines are "So many years, so many hardships, So many laughs, so many tears/So many things to remember, 'Cause they had 50 years."
The opening foreshadows the song's end, which finds a husband writing his deceased wife's name in the sand, only to watch the waves wash it away. Sitting next to my wife, whose been by my side 31 years now, that song resonates. And not in a depressing way, but in a manner that reminds me to appreciate every single moment. That's where the joy is found in Baker's music, between the lines.
You could listen to the Fresh Air interview to get some sense of Baker's joie de vivre, but the best indicator is to just go to a show and watch what he does. His interaction with Elkin and Dolan is loving and familial and, best of all, funny.
Introducing "Isn't Love Great," he told the story of being "invested by the powers of the Internet" to gain ministerial credentials to perform Elkin's recent wedding. He said after the service Elkin approached him and confessed, "Now that I'm married, I have the confidence to play the accordion."
Elkin, who is learning the instrument, half-blushed and giggled while protesting, "No, I did not. I never said that."
The whole band boasted on the Duck's dinner offerings for a good five minutes, with Baker saying, "That salad dressing was so good I put some in my hair." That banter didn't seem odd at all interspersed between aching covers of "Love Hurts" or John Prine's "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness."
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Every song didn't spring from a somber place, either. Two standouts from Say Grace are "Button by Button" and "Ditch." The former is a little naughty, with the opening line, "Zip unzip, snap unsnap, hook unhook, strap unstrap/Button by button, all of her clothes fall down." The latter is s humorous ditty with a killer reference to Taylor Swift. It checked in at No. 68 on Rolling Stone's Best Songs of 2013.
The night rounded out with hear-a-pin-drop offerings "Say Grace," "Change" and "Go In Peace." Things got even quieter when the crowd requested an unplugged version of "Truale" from Mercy. The mike-free performance allowed the pristine harmonies to shine. When the last note was sung and we dispersed, the smiles and hugs and pats on backs made it seem like we were heading out into a kinder and happier place than we'd come from. At least that's what I and Sam Baker hoped for.
Personal Bias: Prettiest things I heard at the show, in order: 1. Lyrics to "Go In Peace"; 2. Elkin's voice, which swings from porcelain-fine vulnerability to forged by fire strength, depending on Baker's penned suggestions; 3. Elkin whistling the solo in "Peace Out," which brought thunderous applause from the room and a proud grin to Baker's face upon completion.
The Crowd: NPR listeners. Wearers of fine blazers from Jos. A. Bank. The people Rocks Off routinely suggests no longer exist at Houston shows: those who come with an abundance of respectful attentiveness during songs and unchecked appreciation for them once they're done.
Overheard In the Crowd: "You know, The Dead is getting together for a reunion." "Without Jerry Garcia?" "If he was there, they'd really be The Dead." Bada-bing!
Random Notebook Dump: The guy who checked my press credentials seemed astonished that I was there shooting photos for this bit with a smartphone. I could have told him I'm not a photographer and was there to paint a picture with words, just like the night's guest artist. But, I had already missed part of Baker's opening number, so I simply offered, "It's easier this way." He skeptically shook his head and walked off.
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