“I couldn’t remember nouns. I called knives and forks things. One day I could hear and the next day I was deaf”.
It’s in this way that Sam Baker describes the days and weeks that followed a Peruvian train bombing that he was lucky to survive. He talks about the little German boy who was sat opposite him when the bomb, placed in a luggage rack above their heads, exploded. “He wasn’t so lucky; I don’t have the right to complain.”
We’re into the second half of the set when Sam tells this life-changing tale from his past. It’s a well-honed tale now but, even if you’ve heard it before, you can’t help but be caught up in the overwhelming surge of emotion that accompanies its delivery. This show at Camden Dingwalls is in two parts and, by his own admission, “you’re going to look back at the first set and say, man, that was a happy set.” It’s all comparative of course. Sam only has one ‘love song’; the rest of his tunes are all dowsed with a downbeat Americana; these are songs about cotton production in God-fearing lands, sparsely arranged and hauntingly told.
For much of these two sets, Sam is joined on stage by Carrie Elkin and Chip Dolan. Chip is the quieter one of the three, a multi-instrumentalist who lets his skills on keyboard, guitar, accordion and vocal harmony do the talking; Carrie is more energetic in her chat. When she sings (or whistles) you get that hushed sense across the audience that only comes when witnessing something stunning. Standing metres from her mic, Carrie knows how to squeeze every drop of emotion from the purity of her vocal.
“Is anybody in the room more newly married than 16 days?“, asks Sam early in the set. Carrie raises her hand and we celebrate her newfound wedded bliss. Sam tells us that he was the wedding officiant and that Carrie’s husband, Danny, remains in the U.S. “This is the weirdest honeymoon ever,” pines Carrie. There’s an over-riding sense of friendship within the room.
This warm friendship and good-natured humour always acts as a counter-balance to the more serious song matter that’s being conveyed. Much is made of the fact that this is the 11th show of this ‘Say Grace’ tour. It’s number eleven because this is the eleventh time ever that Carrie has played the accordion. She picks it up for one tune and plays a note perfect, basic melody. We know she’s learning and the smiles are generous. Sam refers to his album that made the top ten Rolling Stone country albums of the year. “It was just behind Keith Urban – he’s now married to Nicole Kidman,” says Sam by way of comparison. You sense, though, that he’s playing at envy and he wants to be nowhere else but here, in this Monday moment, on a stage in North London.
When you’ve lived a life and experienced the extremes in the way that Sam Baker has, you probably do have a heightened sense of the need to make every moment count. Tonight, at Camden Dingwalls, the audience were given a gentle nudge towards doing the same. This show cannot fail to have a pure, positive impact. You never know what’s around the corner and how your life might change forever.