The Folly Theater was a movie set Friday night.
A camera crew from Kansas City was present to document the sights and sounds of Sam Baker, a singer/songwriter from central Texas who plans to issue the film and a live album as “A Night at the Folly.”
Baker gave the crew plenty to capture during a nearly two-hour show that was as humorous and whimsical as it was poignant, reflective and solemn.
Baker’s songs are typically detailed portraits of people enduring the vagaries of life. Some are happy, like the couple in “Isn’t Love Great,” who, after all these years, still dance and hold hands.
Some are resigned but determined, like the guy in “Ditch,” who’s “got a crazy-ass wife, got a baby on the way” but “I’m glad I got work, glad I got pay.”
And some are bruised and bitter, like the woman in “Orphan,” who was abandoned by a mother who “got tired of her hanging around,” propelling the girl into a series of broken relationships and abandonments of her own.
Baker was accompanied by Carrie Elkin, who sang both harmony and lead vocals and played guitar and accordion, and pianist Chip Dolan, who also played accordion on a few songs. Together, they rendered Baker’s songs sparely, giving his lyrics the space and attention they needed.
The film crew was as inconspicuous as six or seven people carrying cameras could be, but compared to other Baker performances I’ve seen, he seemed slightly inhibited or at least beholden to an informal script.
Friday night he was less garrulous and less inclined to go off on some odd narrative tangent, as he typically does. And the one time he considered straying from the set list, he reminded himself that this wasn’t really the night to do it. Still, there was plenty of humorous rapport between him and Elkin and improvised conversations with the crowd.
There were also some serious moments. Before “Steel,” he told the story of a tragedy that changed his life. In 1986, Baker was riding a train in Peru when a bomb hidden in a suitcase exploded. It killed a family of three Germans, including a young boy Baker was talking to moments before the explosion.
Baker suffered critical injuries, including to his left hand, and severe hearing loss. “Steel” addresses the aftermath of the incident and the deep physical and psychic pain he endured.
A few songs later, before “Broken Fingers,” Baker spoke about how thoughts of the boy on the train helped him emerge from the emotional devastation, from his resentment and bitterness and his addiction to pills and alcohol. “To be alive is a gift,” he told the crowd. “So I gave up the right to complain.”
There were moments of joy and sentimentality. Before “Baseball,” Baker addressed the Royals and their World Series championship. “This is the bluest city in the world,” he said. Then: “I’ve never been in a city so full of joy.”
Other highlights: “Odessa,” a tale of privilege and despair, which, with Elkin, he fused with Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More”; “White Heat,” his tribute to Jimmy Cagney, which included a robust piano flourish from Dolan; and “Go in Peace,” the lovely hymn that closed the first set.
They returned for two more: “Truale,” a cautionary tale of a girl born into oil money who runs off in her teens with a ne’er-do-well and returns in her 30s as a single mom. Ever the optimist, Baker closed with “Pretty World,” a chin-up, smell-the-roses ode that exalts the beauty of the world around us, despite life’s tragedies and sorrows.
It was the perfect valediction to a memorable night and one that will be worth visiting again.
Palestine I; Palestine II; Cotton; Isn’t Love Great; Waves; Orphan; Say Grace; Hard Times Come Again No More/Odessa; Ditch; Steel; Moon; White Heat; Baseball; Broken Fingers; Button By Button; Change; Go in Peace. Encore: Truale; Pretty World.