Home Live Review Live Review: Jeff “Skunk” Baxter @ The Birchmere — 5/4/22

Live Review: Jeff “Skunk” Baxter @ The Birchmere — 5/4/22

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Jeff “Skunk” Baxter performs at The Birchmere on May 4, 2022. (Photo by Mark Caicedo)

Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is one of those “first call” guys, the musician you call first when you need someone who can play just about anything.

Although he’s most famous for his stints in Steely Dan (1972-74) and The Doobie Brothers (1975-79), Jeff has had a long career lending his considerable multi-instrumentalist talents (guitar, pedal steel, keyboards, percussion) supporting artists as diverse as Les Paul, Bryan Adams, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, Hoyt Axton, Rod Stewart Eric Clapton, Donna Summer, and Linda Ronstadt (for whom he played congas on “You’re No Good”).

Playing bass for Jimi Hendrix, although only a one-night stand, was one of his earliest gigs. From the iconic solo on Steely Dan’s “My Old School” to the stutter stop intro of Donna Summers “Bad Girls,” Baxter has touched, and mastered, just about every musical genre.

For now, Skunk has stepped out in front, at least through May, as he tours in support of his new and first solo album, Speed of Heat (BMG/Renew Records), produced by CJ Vanston. On May 4, a near-capacity Birchmere crowd welcomed Skunk and his band like long-lost friends as he performed tunes from the new release (out on June 18) as well as a few iconic “covers.”

With his shaggy moustache and goatee, Skunk remains a striking onstage presence. But when you hear the magic that springs from his fingers, you begin to understand why he’s one of the most sought out session players of all time. Describing his technique in a recent interview with the Musicians Hall of Fame he said, “[I] suss out the musical landscape.” In other words, session players are present at the behest of the “star” and so need to tailor their playing accordingly.

Perhaps even more to the point though, is the notion that serving the song is the most important work of the session player. To say I was eager to witness that transformation from “first call” guy to onstage musical and focal presence would be an understatement.

For many fans, Baxter’s long musical resume is well known. His career started while he was working at Dan Armstrong’s guitar shop on 48th Street in New York when he was 14 and met who would become his own mentor and musical hero: Les Paul. Baxter recalled, “The one thing I will always remember about Les was the joy of his playing. Every time we’d play, we’d spend half of our time laughing.” After cycling through a few bands in New York, he eventually relocated to Los Angeles finding work as a session guitarist, until in 1972 he became a founding member of Steely Dan (along with Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, Denny Dias, and Jim Hodder). He appeared on Dan’s first three albums, Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972), Countdown to Ecstasy (1973), and Pretzel Logic (1974), helping to define that band’s sound, while simultaneously learning the relationship between musical styles and recording technology — an education that had actually begun years before with Les Paul.

Watch Les Paul and Jeff Baxter perform on April 29, 1998, at the House of Blues on YouTube:.

After becoming aware that Becker and Fagen planned to retire Steely Dan from touring, Baxter left to join The Doobie Brothers, for whom he’d previously done session work. Baxter eventually recommended Michael McDonald as lead vocalist to come in for ailing founding Doobie Tom Johnston. With Skunk’s jazzy style, and McDonald’s lead vocals and songwriting talents, the next four years brought a resurgence to the band.

Since that incredible run playing with bands whose music helped to define ’70s rock and roll, Jeff has continued his work as a session player but has also delved into exploring the interface between art and technology. “We thought turntables were for playing records until rappers began to use them as instruments, and we thought airplanes were for carrying passengers until terrorists realized they could be used as missiles,” Baxter said. “My big thing is to look at existing technologies and try to see other ways they can be used, which happens in music all the time…”

Consulting for the Department of Defense was the last thing on our minds at The Birchmere, however. Opening the show, GOODING delivered a high-energy rock and roll set. The band’s Facebook page proclaims that GOODING is fearless, high-energy rock n’ roll and indeed, the power trio, (Gooding on guitar, Erin O’Neill on bass and guitars, and Kelsey Cook on drums) blazed through its 45-minute set. But by the time they wrapped up, though, we were all ready for the highly anticipated headliner.

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Gooding performing at The Birchmere, 5/4/2022

Baxter and band hit the stage with “Ladies from Hell,” an Irish jig that celebrates the fear that Scottish soldiers instill in their enemies. Jeff’s band consisted of Mark Damian on drums, Hank Horton on bass, and CJ Vanston on keyboards. The next song, “My Old School,” was the Steely Dan “cover” we were all anticipating although Skunk himself said, “We’re not a cover band.” This more muscular, guitar driven version recorded for the new album quickly established that this would be a Skunk Baxter show, albeit with nods to his musical past.

Watch Jeff Baxter perform Steely Dan’s “My Old School” at the 2016 NAMM Show TEC Awards on YouTube:

A quartet of originals followed, the first of which, “Giselle,” was an incredibly beautiful, dreamy piece built around Vanston’s gorgeous keyboard foundation. Midway through the set, we were treated to another Dan cover that bore little resemblance to the original. Rather, it was performed as a laid-back blues piece giving the song a bit more menace and bite. Though Wiki lists Skunk’s age as 73, and he sat in a comfy chair while performing, he clearly possesses the wisdom and chops that come from experience yet has retained all the imagination and enthusiasm of an 18-year-old.

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Jeff “Skunk” Baxter performing at The Birchmere, May 4, 2022

The final third of the set began with the lovely “Juliet,” inspired by Jeff’s daughter, who upon hearing it said that it sounds like sunrise. Indeed. “Bad Move,” a collaboration with country star Clint Black, with its pulsating bottom end and screaming lead guitar bore little resemblance to C&W. Baxter noted that the collaborations on the new album had to meet a couple basic requirements: The new compositions had to be co-written with CJ and Skunk, and that they had to be willing to step outside their comfort zones. So Black, and the other guest artists (McDonald, Jonny Lang, and Rick Livingstone) pushed the envelope a bit and agreed to Baxter’s terms. And really, what musician wouldn’t want to work with a legend, and a genuinely nice guy to boot?!

Hear Jeff Baxter with Clint Black perform “Bad Move” via YouTube:

The main set closer, “Insecurity,” with its huge funk beat revealed Baxter’s R&B roots (he also toured with James Brown). The first encore, Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number,” was faithful to the original, but it was preceded by a lovely improvisational piece from CJ and Skunk. The final encore, The Doobies Brothers song, “China Grove,” started off as a straight cover with its opening chunky, driving power chords but was quickly abandoned in favor of an up-tempo bluegrass version, complete with CJ’s synthesizer making pedal steel sounds. Did I mention that Skunk can play anything?

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Skunk Set List, May 4, 2022

Ladies from Hell
My Old School (Steely Dan)
Giselle
Speed of Heat
My Place in the Sun
Apache
Do It Again (Steely Dan)
I Can Do Without
Juliet
Bad Move
Insecurity
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (Steely Dan)
China Grove (Doobie Brothers)

As the concert was winding down, I was thinking about how lucky we are to live in an age where music, live performance, and the community it inspires can come together in such beautiful and poignant ways. Before the show, I saw Jeff mingling with the crowd, greeting old and new friends. Any trepidation I had about his frontman status quickly dissolved as the expert show pacing took the audience on a ride that picked us up, and gently laid us down.

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Speaking of Les Paul, Baxter has said, “That’s one of the things about his music that was so appealing to me — because, yes, there was a lot of technology, there was a lot of stuff for a human brain to decode, but, no matter what, the emotion and the joy always showed through all of that. And that is the mark of an incredible musician.”

After this night at The Birchmere, clearly those words apply to you as well, Skunk.

To find more live dates, preorder Speed of Heat, and learn more about Jeff’s career please visit his website.

Here are some more photos of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and his band. All photos copyright and courtesy of Mark Caicedo.

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