Live Review: Bastian Baker at Infinite Energy Center

I got the call at 5:04 p.m. on June 4. The voice on the other end of the line was alerting me that my tickets for Canadian country-music superstar Shania Twain’s appearance at Duluth’s Infinite Energy Arena were secure and waiting at will call for me. So, of course, the first thing I did was start calling around trying to find someone who understood this was a not-to-be-missed situation. First call? Dinner plans. Second call? Band practice. Third call? “Aw, Gordon, thanks but… really?”

So, whatever. I sped away from Athens thinking traffic was going to be heavy, but wound up getting to the venue an hour and a half early.

I picked up the tickets at will call and sat around outside looking for a ticketless fan to help out. After a while of sitting around, I just asked this lady who was sitting down several feet away if she had tickets to the show, and she said, “No, I just drove my daughter and her friend here. We’re from four and a half hours away. I’m going to wait for them and drive back home.” So, as it turns out, it was a damn good thing no one from Athens wanted to go with me, because this woman clearly deserved a free ticket more than anyone. The seats turned out to be in the gol’ darned 15th row. Veritable spitting distance from the stage. There are a lot of cool parents in Athens, for sure. But dammit if my heart didn’t get tugged a bit at the personal sacrifice this woman had made just so her kid could see her favorite singer. 

I had pretty well figured that Shania Twain’s show was going to be spectacular (note: It was), but I was there officially to cover opener Bastian Baker. I’d spun his records a few times, and even given his vocal appreciation for Simon & Garfunkle, R.E.M. and others, his music just hadn’t clicked with me. He’s a bona fide star in his native Switzerland, but his music sounds very modern American, complete with semi-breathy, pause-y vocals that are still fresh and crisp and clearly enunciated.

He came out and made a few jokes about how, because he’s Swiss, he thought the name of the town was pronounced “de-loot.” Baker is 27 and seems like he’s been exactly that age for several years: that odd period of adulthood between being too young to know anything and just old enough to think you know everything. He’s handsome in a particularly disarming way where you totally get why women find him attractive, but not so good-looking that he’s unapproachable or you find yourself thinking he never had an awkward stage. Hell, his hit “Tattooed on My Brain” was written for a girl that swore up and down she loved him. He wrote the song, then she dumped him. Lord knows that’s got to sting in that stupidly awkward way where he just knows he’s going to have to explain this goddamned song all the time, right?

I suppose it doesn’t matter now, though, because he’s got that story to tell before he plays that song every night. And he tells it in such totally disarming language, and he’s got that Swiss accent that may be as common overseas as kudzu is here but in Georgia in June sounds soft and welcoming and a little self-effacing. 

Baker’s music translates much better live, at least initially. So much so it’s nearly a completely different experience than listening to his albums. During the show, it was possible to discern the actual influences he’s spoken about (Simon & Garfunkle, et al). That said, it’s easier to go back now and re-listen to his recordings and hear them in a whole new way. I should’ve made notes as to which songs he actually played this night, because there weren’t many. In the best show-business tradition, he came out quickly, told some jokes, played a handful of songs, talked up the headliner and got off the stage.  But from his catalog, tearjerkers like the Dylan-ish “Ain’t No Love” and the brand-spankin’ new “Love on Fire” are superb and great starting points.

Like I said before, he’s a legitimate pop star in Europe. Hell, he’s been on the French version of “Dancing With the Stars” and was a coach on Belgium’s version of “The Voice.” When it comes to pop credentials, those are each fine and good—and for millions, desirable and enviable—but can make the air foggy and turn up noses when it comes to judging that ever-elusive quality of authenticity. So, let me be clear about this: When Baker sings, I believe him. All the best songwriters are, eventually, telling you about yourself as much as they’re telling you anything about them. 

By the time I was driving back to Athens, I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d been told, but I knew it was something, and it felt like it was important. As this brutal season seems to drag on and on, I hope I figure it out, because I know it’s there.