Ginger Angel

Thee Ginger Baker made a pilgrimage to Oakland this weekend. Saturday’s two shows were completely sold out and Sunday only had a few empty chairs. It is hard to say what brought the crowds. Looked like a lot of folks last saw him playing alongside Eric Clapton with Cream or Blind Faith. I was among a smaller, slightly younger group that had seen the recent documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, more interested in Ginger Baker the man, one of the great drummers of all time but also a fascinating character that lived in Nigeria from 1970-76 collaborating with Fela. A man that is continuously followed by tragedy, some self-inflicted. A scary dude that tells it like it is with no patience for bullshit. If you don’t have time for the movie, check out this recent interview with Rolling Stone.

Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion was a four-piece with Ginger on a serious set up including double bass drums. There was a ‘drunk-driving taxi guy from Ghana’ on conga and bongo (Abass Dodoo). He played cowbell and three tiny cymbals mostly with his hands. Alec Dankworth played amazing upright bass and a mean electric to boot. The sax player, Pee Wee Ellis, sat in a chair the whole time. Ellis played with James Brown in the ’60s and Van Morrison through the ’80s and ’90s. He is one of those players that makes it look so easy. He wrote one song from the setlist entitled “Twelve and More Blues”. Solos went from sax to bass to drums with Ginger and the taxi-conga man playing together with a wild African result.

Ginger wrote one song while driving “at top speed” in the Atlas Mountains of North Algeria. He lost control of the vehicle and landed in a small village. The long hypnotic tune left me on camel back with William Burroughs when suddenly Ginger’s car comes flying through the sky to land on the dirt road in front of us.

They played “Footprints” by Wayne Shorter and “Ginger Spice” by Ron Miles with a fierce solo of tiny cymbals from Abass Dodoo. After a short break they played a slow blues with an unnerving metronome beat coming from the conga player. The last song of the night was a “killer” from Lagos Nigeria that was described as both “a lullaby and a war crime.”

For the encore Ginger commented that this was the 20th show in 10 days and it was “bloody hard work.” He suggested this might be his last show, and we might all see him die on stage. Indeed, he was panting and wheezing as he spoke between songs, years of cigarette smoking and the resulting COPD at work. He spoke of the tragedy that seems to follow him around, and despite the crowds nervous laughter, he insisted that it was not a laughing matter. The wife of his children was at the moment in the ICU and not expected to make it. These events always made him ask “Why?” which became the last song of the evening with breaks for the crowd to yell “Why?!” During this tune the sax player cut loose, taking us from Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance” to James Brown’s “I Feel Good”. The conga player pulled out some drumsticks and went haywire on those tiny cymbals, his arms a complete blur.