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Skunk Baxter: Speed of Heat
(Renew Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/6/2022)
It takes a good deal of versatility to make it as a studio musician, and a good one can stay quite busy, sometimes to the point of not having much time pursue a solo career. Over the years, there have been quite a few albums by studio musicians, and many of them seem to be determined to show their versatility on the record, rather than developing a distinctive sound. This week, we have a new recording by perhaps the epitome of a studio guitarist, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, who after nearly a fifty year career as a supporting musician, has finally released his first solo album under his own name. It’s called Speed of Heat.
Known for his work as a member the early incarnation of the Doobie Brothers, and a founding member of Steely Dan, his studio work, starting in 1969, includes recordings with such artists Carly Simon, Dolly Parton, Donna Summer, Barbra Streisand, Judy Collins, Little Feat, Rod Stewart, and Bryan Adams to name a few.
Interestingly, in recent years, since the 1980s, Baxter has worked in missile defense, as a Pentagon contractor consultant and has been a member of the NASA Exploration Systems Advisory Committee. So he has not been as active musically in recent years.
Now at 73, Baxter decided to get back into music and do his first solo album. As he writes in the liner notes, “Playing guitar in all its iterations has always been my first love.” So he got back together with some musical friends, and worked throughout the album with multi-instrumentalist CJ Vanston, who is heard on keyboards, electronic percussion and miscellaneous instruments. The material includes a number of original pieces with guests, including his old Doobie Bothers band-mate Michael McDonald, bluesman Jonny Lang, and country star Clint Black. There are also come covers, including two by Steely Dan, on which Baxter played in the original recording, and old surf guitar tune. The majority of the album is instrumental, and the direction is mainly straight-out rock, rather than the jazz and fusion that many studio musicians do when they make a solo album.
Speed of Heat is a generous recording, just about an hour long. It leads off with a rather elaborate original instrumental by Baxter and Vanston called Ladies from Hell. It’s an interesting combination of sounds with a style that evokes the soundtrack to an old Western, but with some synthesized bagpipes. <<>> Baxter solos on both electric and acoustic guitar. <<>>
The first of the two Steely Dan covers is My Old School which is given a decidedly more rock-oriented treatment than the original. <<>>
With a more mellow sound is the instrumental called Juliet which is just Baxter’s guitars and the electronic backdrop, including the sequenced percussion by CJ Vanston. <<>>
Jonny Lang appears on a blues and soul influenced original called Can Do Without. <<>> The two guitarists get to exchange some riffs. <<>>
The other Steely Dan cover is Do It Again which is done instrumentally in an interesting arrangement, that nevertheless maintains the same groove as the original. <<>>
Another creative cover is of the old surf rock instrumental Apache originally from 1960. <<>>
Michael McDonald makes his appearance on the track My Place in the Sun, which he co-wrote with Baxter and Vanston. It’s a contemplative sounding ballad, and nicely done. <<>>
The album ends with its title track Speed of Heat an all-out cranked up guitar instrumental, giving Baxter a chance to do some shredding, which he has not done much in the course of his studio work for others. <<>>
It has actually been quite a few years since Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, ubiquitous studio guitarist and key member of the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan has been heard on record, while concentrating on his second career in the aerospace industry, working with a high level security clearance. He returns to what he describes as his first love, playing guitar, on his first formal solo album under his own name in a 50 year recording career. Like other studio players who release their own albums, he shows his versatility, with a set that includes originals and interesting covers of tunes, in some cases covers of songs he originally played on. He gets into fusion and jazz less than a number of other prominent studio guitarists on their own albums. With his musical partner multi-instrumentalist CJ Vanston, he spans rock, blues, bits of country and old surf guitar material, and is rejoined by the Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald on a mellow tune. The result makes for worthwhile listening.
Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. There is good clarity and the mix generally keeps things in the right proportion. But volume-compression is heavy handed and part of the album just seems annoyingly loud.
There is a long history of studio musicians releasing solo albums, but the usually do it at the height of their careers. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s Speed of Heat marks a return to music after a long hiatus. Hopefully, the advanced aerospace systems that Baxter works on can spare him to let him make more music for us.
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