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May 5, 2014 1:04 pm
Gingerly might be the best way to approach anything involving Ginger Baker. The man revered as the Van Gogh of the drums – for his thunderous contributions to Cream, Blind Faith and Fela Kuti’s band – is reputedly the most cantankerous in rock. Gingerly, too, because the former heroin addict suffers from degenerative osteoarthritis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I can’t have been the only person at this gig, which launched his direct-to-fans anthology, A Drummer’s Tale, to wonder whether he would make it to the end of the evening.
It had also been billed, since he turns 75 in August, as a bit of a birthday party for the old cove. “Happy birthday, Ginger,” shouted a well-wisher as the star was helped to his stool by his “bodyguard” and co-drummer Abass Dodoo. “It’s not my birthday,” came the sour reply, surely knowingly true to form. One-nil, Baker. Surprisingly straight-backed, with his arms holding his wrists away as though they were stinky fish, he looked down his nose and over a curled lip at his kit, and us, like a superannuated Bill Nighy. Splashily, he settled into Ron Miles’s meandering “Ginger Spice”, alongside Dodoo on congas (mostly), Alan Skidmore’s diligent tenor sax and the spry Alec Dankworth on bass.
Drumming simultaneously sustains and saps him. “It’s bloody hard work nowadays,” Baker said, audibly short of breath. “But I’ll do my best.” Like his mate Charlie Watts, Baker sees himself primarily as a jazzer. On Wayne Shorter’s “Footsteps”, he offered delicate cascades of cymbals during one of the more liquid passages. Baker is demonstrably better suited to such material now.
He used brushes for a rather lumbering take on Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”, with Lynne Jackaman a Janis-y vocalist. She really went for it on a sax-assisted “Sunshine of Your Love”, the track developing a southern gothic tang when Marcus Bonfanti got his fangs into the guitar solo. Baker looked most immersed in Fela’s jiggly and pulsing “Egbe Mio”, as he and Dodoo traded a percussive call-and-response.
It was a call of nature, apparently, that soon led Baker from the stage. We were told there would be an interval, but he returned forthwith for “Why?” – the title tune of next month’s album, his first for 16 years. It was a satisfyingly stompy rant, with the crowd invited to chant the salient word. Then the band was off again. Was this the proper break in the set?
Actually, they trooped back after a couple of minutes, whereupon Baker declared that “Toad”, his legendarily tireless tour de force, “was just not on”. They gave an amiable account of Sonny Rollins’s “St Thomas” instead, Baker barking “No!” at one attempt to wind up and plunging into a final face-off with an I’ll-be-damned determination. Exeunt. It was pretty obvious why the show then finished after its eighth number and barely an hour. How he managed that much was the issue.
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