Scott Baker is like a fine wine that just gets better over time. It seems that despite his prolific output he continues to build and perfect his craft. It helps that he has a kick-ass band with Eric Janetsky on guitar, Timmy Scott on drums and Matt Nyquist on the bass guitar. On his new CD there are also several special guests that weigh-in with session work, including Andy Reed, Eddie Garcia, Andy Rogers and the legendary B-3 player Dan 'Swival' Sliwinski.
Having won big in the Blues Division at the 2013 Review Music Awards, securing honors for Best Blues Band and with Baker & Janetsky earning the nod as Best Blues Instrumentalists (in a tie vote) the upcoming year will be a big one for The Universal Expressions.
WHNN's Blondie is the de-facto manager and spiritual guide for the band with Johnny B. peeking over her shoulder. Baker recorded the group's latest release at his studio, Sour Mash Studio in Bay City. They mixed and mastered the disc at Reed Recording in Bay City, beginning the project in June 2012 and finished it up in February 2013. It was an eight month labor of love and its Baker's best body of music so far.
Here's a track-by-track breakdown of what to expect on Northern Hospitality:
The opener is an old time foot stompin' blues entitled Radical Spiritual (Prepare Yourself). It's an ancient field holler taken from the John Lee Hooker Playbook. It has the enlightened righteousness of Leadbelly singing the Bourgeoisie Blues.
Slow Morning is an ode to hearth and home, a hippie creed of peace, love and living off the land. It's a mid-tempo rocker with prominent B-3 accents and splashes of tremolo guitar. The time signature shifts about and some sweet wah wah guitar drops into the mix. The echoed background vocals segue to a call and response hook and there is a tasty jam at the coda. The lyrics are awash in warm sepia tones like an old photograph…Morning coffee, rub my eyes…I'm wide awake…I'm gonna give back…A little of what I take.
Tricked Out opens with a marching band drum roll. Baker matches the bass string riff in a layered attack. The guitar line is one octave above the bass - sweet harmonics. The lyrics are direct and simple: You're a little tricked out…I'm a little flipped out. Baker's solo on the bridge combines big fat notes with delicious harmonies. Several tempo changes chase the mood around the block and back again. The extended jam takes the listener on quite a ride with sweet tones of home and family and a bass line that evokes the purity of mother earth.
Magnificent has an Allman Brothers vive with a second guitar layering the riff a note higher than the lead, there's an organ splash that fills out the sound. Baker rings the E-string and the music starts cookin'. The band's harmonics are masterful. They don't just fill space, they create an emotional landscape for the music to breathe. This is a song about deep end carnal desire - so hot and pure makes you stand up and pay attention.
Juke Joint Revival is a straight up 4/4 rocker. The bass guitar joins in with a Peter Gunn riff. This is a tribute to the old fashioned blues, boogie and barbecue with veiled references of getting' you some…love that tasty sweet to the bone meat . Blues is the perfect vehicle for greasy sexual metaphors. There is a masterful interplay between Baker's slide guitar and the piano riff and a pinch of harp. Gimme some Johnny Bassett, Alberta Adams and John Lee Hooker any day - great tune - a throwback back to past musical migrations, better times; the worst of times. I loved the screams and applause at the end. It took me there.
Baker slows down the tempo on Frail as the music becomes a morality play. It has a thematic consistency about life and the mystery of death. The juxtaposition of Jesus and politicians with evangelists and salvation is compelling and thoughtful. Where will we go when our life ends…won't know till you get there? Baker is near the zenith of his craft. He reveals his own doubts and frailty with just his voice and guitar. The rhythm section slides back-in, providing the soundscape for Baker's extended solo.
Back Pockets is simply a great performance. It is an acoustic ballad that speaks to the pain of being one step down in love and in life. Baker's vocal is assured yet conveys just a bit of vulnerability
Bemos is a heartfelt tribute to one of the greatest rock & roll hubs in mid-Michigan. Hail to Rob and Luann Ervin - the good guys. This is a mid-tempo rocker with a cool goodtime vibe. The background singers are exceptional they echo Baker's lead vocal. He sings it with a smile in his voice. I love this song!
Only You opens withsome sweet slide and just a bit of tremolo. Baker's full bodied e-string excursions are reminiscent of Henry Vestine's work with Canned Heat in the seventies - Bob “The Bear” Hite was still singing the leads. I saw them perform at the Brewery in East Lansing in 1973 and Vestine's riffs were pure magic. Baker's riffs recall Vestine's craft on Let's Work Together - it's a shining moment.
Bring the Sun has a Bad Company sound. The bass string lead guitar has a circular pattern and the bsnap of the wrist drum pattern is right in the pocket. The rhythm section is the unsung heroes on this disc. The bass and drums form a tight coalition like Entwhistle and Moon Won't Get Fooled Again. They are so good they can make it tight and right at the same time they give enough space for Baker's exploratory leads.
Northern Hospitality speaks to the laid back vibe of our brethren from the UP. It has a slowed down walkabout time signature that conveys the summer means fun pace of life beyond mid-Michigan. It's like another world, quaint yet sophisticated. It's a part of the annual migration and it pays for aspiring rock & rollers to learn the lay of the land. The song has a cool groove and sets the tone to imagine cherry pies, clear lake water, bonfires and fish fries. Leave your troubles behind, at least for a moment
You Got Nerve is an old time blues with harp, screaming guitar and a 12 bar -turnaround. Baker's baritone lends itself nicely to this tongue-in-cheek woe is me blues for the masses. The lyric is hilarious yet filled with pain. Baker et al must have had a ball putting this one together. Baker's playing at the coda is simply stunning. He's having the time of his life.
You said you want a diamond
But I gave you love instead
But now you won't let me
Pass out in my own bed
Heart & Soul is colored by a simple acoustic pattern and washed by lovely earth tones through a synth backdrop. The vocalist is singing through a synth - almost like a vocoder. His voice is echoed, soft and conversational as if he is sitting at the kitchen table. This is a beautifully crafted song by Eric Janetsky, one of the most wistful ballads I've heard in ages. Sample the lyrics, simple yet elegant.
As long as I'm living
This is my song to you
When I am gone from here
My words will still be true
If life were so simple
We'd have a simple plan
Wait for tomorrow
start over again
Hope floats to the surface
Sinks back down again
Oceans are endless
But rivers curve and bend
Life is a story where
Every page is read
Life is a postcard
I know I'll never send
The perfect ending!!