Duck Baker – Les Blues Du Richmond: Demos & Outtakes 1973 – 1979
Tompkins Square – 20 April 2018
This was a great idea, giving us a truncated listen to one of the most well regarded American finger-style guitar players of his generation. Baker has released a hell of a lot of solo, duo, trio and soundtrack music in a recording career that officially started in 1975 with There’s Something for Everyone in America, released on Kicking Mule Records. Demos & Outtakes consists of fourteen previously unreleased and mostly instrumental short tracks recorded for Stefan Grossman at Kicking Mule.
All of these tracks (aside from ‘That Rhythm Man’, with some lively fiddle backing) feature just Duck and his nylon-strung flamenco guitar, which has a very soft and pleasing sound, even when played pretty quickly, as Duck can. This disc starts off with ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, a brisk summer walk of a song that doffs its cap along the way. This one certainly has a fairly strong whiff of early John Fahey about it, but with that Spanish guitar having the string decay that leaves each note with plenty of room to breathe. On ‘Homage to Leadbelly’, Baker shows off his Blues skills with a more fluid and sassier piece of playing that jumps around a bit and suggests a musician having plenty of fun showcasing his skill. Better still is ‘Allah, Perhaps’, which is an altogether slower piece of playing that demonstrates the skill in restraint of this player. The notes are more spacious for a time here and unusual in style, with Eastern influences coming in at points and some changes in speed and mood creating interesting textures and a suggestion of improvisation.
The opposite approach is suggested in the title track, which takes pride of place at the centre of the set, where it sits as a wonderful piece of cowboy film music. The playing here is more structured than on parts of the album, which suggests the song is one that was fully formed before the tape was rolling. It results in a complete piece that has intricacy and flow to its advantage and it sits well alongside a less concretely conceived (but even more interesting?) piece like ‘Allah’.
Elsewhere we have a very beautiful two-minute tune in ‘Swedish Jig’, where Duck makes a tricky guitar seem easy in a fault-free performance before the set ends with ‘Pretty Girl Milking a Cow’, a track that counter-balances the previous, with a sense of melancholy. In many ways, this song, my favourite of the set, fully illustrates the beauty of solo guitar music. It has the melodic strength of something like Fahey’s ‘Summer Cat by my Door’ and, like that song, is unafraid to keep the tune running at a modest pace with medium picking and minimal flourishes (although there is a sweet string bend in there at points); the result is a small piece of yearning that leaves us imagining a story to go alongside it. Excellent.
This is a very skilfully put together set of songs from a very accomplished player. There is something so simple and honest in their arrangement of Spanish guitar and not a lot else, but the range of musical genres covered, along with the technical prowess of the playing results in an album that is constantly riveting and fits a lot of beautiful music from six years’ of recording sessions, into thirty-nine minutes, without the suggestion of a seam. Highly recommended.
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