Album Reviews: Revealing Solo Guitar Outings from Duck Baker and Nathan Salsburg

Two albums reviewed, Duck Baker's Demos & Outtakes, and Nathan Salsburg's Third
Duck Baker and Nathan Salsburg

From the December 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY KENNY BERKOWITZ

Duck Baker

There’s an essential, idiosyncratic Southern-ness in these early Duck Baker tracks, half of them recorded at age 23 in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, the other half in London, where he moved four years later. You can hear it in his Piedmont version of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” which channels equal parts Blind Boy Fuller and Buck Evans, a local pianist who served as one of Baker’s earliest, most eccentric inspirations. You can hear it in “Homage to Leadbelly,” which starts with a nearly straight “Midnight Special” before quickly heading off in multiple directions at once—from Thelonious Monk to Leonard Bernstein—that point toward a far different future.


Recorded at a time when no experiment was too outlandish, these Richmond demos show Baker trying to find himself, starting with folk tunes but quickly shifting to bebop, Tin Pan Alley, Jelly Roll Morton, Lovie Austin, even Antonín Dvořak. He transplants that Richmond restlessness to London, where it continues to morph, and on the title track, from the earliest London session, you can almost hear the moment when his mind shifts continents, moved by the stateliness and harmonic richness of the fingerpicking revivalists all around him in England.

Baker never loses that Southern-ness, but on tunes like “Sandy River Belle,” which can be found on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s no longer the center of his vision, and by the time he tackles the Irish “Pretty Girl Milking a Cow,” he’s remade himself, finding a mid-Atlantic accent that’s halfway between his old and new homes. All of a sudden, you hear a sense of relaxedness that hasn’t been there before, a focus. And though he hasn’t lost his wildness, he’s learned to temper it, to create the hybrid that will lead to where he is now, all these decades later.

Here’s Baker earlier this year playing a couple of tunes from this album for Acoustic Guitar Sessions:

Nathan Salsburg


After a pair of collaborations with James Elkington and Joan Shelley, guitarist Nathan Salsburg approached his third solo recording with a new sense of purpose, “surprised to find that a lot of my previous over-seriousness” was gone and that “I was longer hell-bent on shoving a dozen ideas into a single song, where three or four were satisfactory.” The result, far from simple, is Salsburg’s sweetest, most graceful work to date, teasing out unlikely harmonies and smartly pushing the soft edges of these ten neo-trad tunes.

Third opens with the rollicking, spirited “Timoney’s,” based on Liam O’Flaherty’s short story about an ass set free after the death of its cruel master. (A handful of Salsburg’s best compositions are about animals, and the cover of Third includes paintings of a donkey, a buck, a sheep, and Salsburg.) It continues with “Impossible Air” —written about a great dinner and a bad night’s sleep—which moves between a second and a sixth in unhurried, winding pull-offs and hammer-ons. It follows with the traditional hornpipe “Planxty Davis,” a favorite of step dance competitions, played here as a pastoral that’s full of feeling, imagination, and quiet wonder.

Best of all, there’s “Walls of the World,” with its crisp, ringing repetitions, high-definition picking, and gentle contradictions, which manage to simultaneously convey something very small and something very large. There’s a warm, empathic precision in Salsburg’s playing, highlighting how smoothly he reconciles opposite moods on “Ruby’s Freilach/Low Spirits” and how carefully he’s able to maintain a feather-lightness on “A Hovering,” which balances rising and falling progressions. It’s an incredible accomplishment, and from start to finish, Third is stunningly beautiful, showing just how far these patiently intimate pieces can reach.

 Salsburg performs the song “Timoney’s” from Third:

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Kenny Berkowitz
Kenny Berkowitz

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