The fabulous Baker boy and the Rose
Blues duo Don Baker and Clara Rose tell Barry Egan about the chance meeting that led to their musical marriage and the links between African Americans and the Irish
Published 09/05/2016 | 02:30
Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen, said Amy Winehouse (who sadly knew more about bad situations than most). Don Baker's blues songs are moments in the zeitgeist. You can hear the gritty emotion in his playing. It isn't phoned in. It is felt, experienced. Be that as it may, the Don himself picked up the phone one night at home in Dublin. It was a friend, who has since died, calling from Utah in America.
"That was many moons ago," Don recalls. "A pal of mine was at a U2 concert. Bono was playing the harmonica on a song.
"Before he started the song, Bono said: 'The greatest blues harmonica player in the world comes from Dublin - and his name is Don Baker.'"
Is Bono's analysis correct? Are you the best blues harmonica player in the world?
"No. I never thought of myself as the best blues harmonica player in the world.
"I'm a good harmonica player. I'm probably an old-fashioned style harmonica player. There's new people coming through. There's a guy called Howard Levy in America who can do all kinds of things. It's all technical."
"Talking about blues specifically," Don adds, "it's a different animal. It's how you express yourself. It's how you bend the notes, how you wail, how you express anger.
"It's all emotion. Jimi Hendrix said: 'Blues is very easy to play; it's very hard to feel'. And he was right."
"I was with black people in Alabama. Their background was pretty similar to (Irish people's].
"When they had their struggles in the early 1960s, when they had the police out with the water cannons, they were fighting for democracy, fighting for the vote, and it was the same in this country with Northern Ireland.
"There is a huge affiliation between Irish people and black people. There was a time in England when they had signs in windows that said: 'No blacks, no Irish, no dogs'."
Speaking of U2, Don and the majestically-voiced singer Clara Rose are here in Windmill Studios in Dublin to perform I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For at the Windmill Lane Sessions on Independent.ie, to discuss their new album, Baker Rose, and to wax lyrically about their chemistry.
"We met in a music shop in my home town. I had just made my first album," Clara says, referring to The Portfolio. "It kind of had a blues, folk, country tinge to it."
Clara says she had an affiliation with Don's music before she met him.
So she went to the car, got a copy of the album and went back in and introduced herself and told Don: "I love your music. Have a listen to my CD".
Don told her: "Put your phone number on the back of that and if I like it I'll give you a ring."
How long before he rang?
"Two weeks later on a Monday morning at 9am, I got a phone call from Don Baker.
"He said: 'I'd love to meet you for a coffee to discuss doing some recording.' We met up and we clicked as people too, which is important."
I ask Don to describe that connection. "Eleanor McEvoy said about us recently that we are a beautiful musical marriage," Don says.
"She was right: there is a great chemistry between us.
"It allows me to work on my guitar playing in the background backing up Clara. That requires a different style than I am normally used to playing."
For the full interview, plus two exclusive performances, see the Windmill Lane Sessions at independent.ie You can also watch the Sessions on TG4.