BACK WITH THE BLUES: Pam Baker.
You can’t ask too much of the blues. Like the raw emotion they’ve become synonymous with, the blues are not cerebral. They are not progressive or revelatory. They are not the next big thing.
They are a touchstone, though. A musical interpretation of the human experience. Done well, it is music you feel in your gut, tugging on nostalgic thoughts that may have been better buried, but it turns out feel kind of warm and fuzzy. Done poorly, it is music that rings brutally hollow, a cheap masturbatory imitation of something that once had meaning.
The Blues Won’t Wait, the first album since 1999 from Pam Baker and the SGs, Maine’s/Portland’s Queen of the Blues, certainly isn’t trying to push the genre forward. It revels in the tradition of 12 bars and three chords and verses crafted from repeated phrases and rejoinders: “Woke up this morning, had the blues on my mind/Woke up this morning, had the blues on my mind/But I ain’t been satisfied in a long, long time.”
Baker is a throwback and an icon, like Joplin emulating the transcendent men of blues — BB King, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker — but also throwing in a jazz-blues number like “Bakin’ the Blues” as a nod to Etta James or Billie Holiday. She isn’t as gritty or tortured as Joplin, nor sultry and sexy like Holiday, but is a versatile singer and always utterly believable. When she covers Joplin’s “What Good Can Drinking Do” (find it on the nine-disc rarities collection Blow All My Blues Away) and sings, “Give me some whiskey, give me bourbon, give me gin/It don’t matter what you give me, as long’s it drowns the sorrow I’m in,” there’s little doubt that Baker is as powerless to keep from singing and performing this music as a drunk is powerless against having just one.
She is supported, too, by old souls. Guitarist Steve Bailey mostly channels Stevie Ray Vaughan, ripping electric solos in each song’s bridge, but also shows versatility, as when he matches Baker’s scatting in Eddie Miller’s “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” with fractured and scattered riffs of his own. His notes are crisp and staccato, the punchy lines begging for good speakers that will do justice to their percussive nature.
The rhythm section of Don Reed on bass and Chris Hartogh on drums are notable mostly for their feel. They help Baker get playful on “Treat Me Right,” where her newly nasally tones are supported by an appropriately plaintive bass line. And the crunchy and throaty grit of “Baby, What You Want Me to Do” is punctuated by a wicked snare line.
If anything, Baker could maybe use even more support on the album, varying up the sound a bit with a guest harpist here or an organ player there who could keep the songs from running quite so much together. When you’re doing standards (and originals that don’t stray too far from the standards), it’s the nuance and flair you listen for, the original interpretation or the string of notes in the lead you’ve never quite heard arranged that way, and here Bailey is forced to do much of the heavy lifting. He could use a hand.
Check out John Lee Hooker Jr.’s new All Odds Against Me, if you want to know what I’m getting at. There are horns, and funk lines, and bits of hip-hop aesthetic scattered through it that offer pleasant surprises among what are very deep-rooted blues tunes. But also check out that new Vanguard Visionaries series if you’re looking for more of what inspired Baker in the first place, and you’ll find plenty of tracks that are stripped positively raw.
In the end, a successful blues album in this day and age comes mostly down to charisma and feel. Do you believe the music that’s being played? Are they playing the blues because they absolutely have to, or because it’s a costume worth trying on for look and feel?
Baker and company pass these tests by my reckoning, but there may be no genre more personal than the blues, and you’ll just have to decide whether the SGs get your gut going or not.
The Blues Won’t Wait | Released by Pam Baker and the SGs on Klarity Music | at Freeport Cabaret, in Freeport | September 27 | at Frog & Turtle, in Westbrook | October 10 |www.pambakerblues.com
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at email@example.com.