A sometimes dangerous Baker
Sherman Baker is a dangerous man, at least in the world of electronic mail. Although it happens mercifully less often these days, Baker has been famous for sending out critical blasts to his mailing list. He did this last year in response to his not being nominated for a Sacramento Area Music Award. Later, he sent out another e-mail scolding SN&R for not nominating some of his friends and peers for various awards.
Baker’s occasional temper tantrums aside, his music—a roots-based singer-songwriter style that this paper has called “Americana” in the past—has been increasingly well-received these days. This is partly because of an association with Jackie Greene and the folks at Greene’s management company, Dig Music, and partly because of a Wednesday-night happy hour residency at the Torch Club. Simply put, Baker has been playing and playing and playing.
The practice has paid off in at least one way: Baker’s stage presence is superb these days, as evidenced by last week’s Torch Club gig. (It was his first with his rhythm section, drummer Tom Monson and bassist Jacob Jarzemkoski.) This is noteworthy because, just a few years ago, Baker’s solo performances were marked by a complete and utter lack of stage presence. Now, he banters a bit with the audience and holds its interest with witty comments and fragmented stories.
Unfortunately, when he actually played his songs on Wednesday night, this listener’s interest waned pretty quickly. In part, this is because his songs tend to set a relatively limited melody line, often of just two or three notes. Then that melody line is repeated exactly—often down to the syllabic phrasing—throughout the remainder of the song. As a listener, I found myself wondering what the musical point was. Most often, I felt like I knew the song inside of the first verse and then had to listen to it again and again as the verse structure repeated. This was particularly problematic during numbers like the long, pointless “Allison Robertson,” a song about the guitarist for the all-girl rock band the Donnas. It’s a song with very little melody and almost no lyrics whatsoever. (In Baker’s defense, the song was met with enthusiasm from the audience. One member even yelled up to the stage, “That’s a good classic rock ’n’ roll sound!”)
Having lobbed this critical grenade, I also should note that despite this, the Torch Club residency seems to be quite successful for Baker. The audience at the Torch Club was relatively small, but people were enthusiastic and knew his material well enough to yell out occasional requests. One wonders if the reception has anything to do with Baker’s association with Greene. I recognized several of the audience members from Greene’s local performances, and it might be noted that Baker has grown to sound increasingly like Greene.
It’s clear that Baker has been learning from Greene’s example, and that’s a good thing. Baker’s songs, like Greene’s, are easy to remember upon one quick listen, and that’s certainly a hallmark of good pop songwriting. But such songwriting also can be like riding the edge of a razor: Accessibility can blur quickly into banality. On that note, I find myself awaiting Baker’s next e-mail.