By his own admission, Dan Baird might not be the world’s best vocalist. But when legendary Rolling Stones sax man Bobby Keys tapped Baird to handle lead vocals in his band a few years ago, he told him that he was in fact the perfect choice.
“I asked him, I said, ‘Don’t you want a better singer?’” Baird recalls during a recent phone conversation from his Nashville home. “He went, ‘Hell no, man! I get some guy in there singing on key, my horn’s gonna sound flat!’ He said I sang like he played. Flat! So we agreed it was a good thing!”
It was a gig that he wouldn’t forget.
“My God. He seriously was Yosemite Sam that could play the shit out of a saxophone,” the former Georgia Satellites singer says with a chuckle. “The madder and/or more inebriated he got, the more ‘Texas’ he got. It was periodically quite the source of humor. He was Texas-sized.”
The chance to play with Keys came about when the notoriously colorful horn man, who had been living in Tennessee since the ’90s, decided to put together a band to play songs from the incredible catalog of music that he had been associated with. After a false start with different players, guitarist Chark Kinsolving began to assemble the lineup that eventually included Baird, Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman and several others.
The setlist featured a good chunk of Stones favorites including some of Keys’ most signature moments, like “Bitch,” plus songs he had recorded with other artists like “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” (John Lennon), “The Wanderer” (Dion) and “What Is Life” (George Harrison). That was just scratching the surface musically, as Baird points out. “We didn’t do any [Harry] Nilsson songs. We didn’t do ‘Photograph’ by Ringo. There was a batch of tunes that we could have done.”
But it was an opportunity that no one who was involved was about to miss out on.
“We all went, ‘Playing with Bobby Keys? Yeah!’ Everybody had the exact same reaction. Then we went down and did a rehearsal at a little club, Douglas Corner, and I can remember, I will tell you the story,” Baird says with an audible grin. “We’re in there and Bobby’s called up, he’s going to be running a few minutes late. So we decided to delve into some of the songs [while we were waiting]. We ran ‘Live With Me,’ I think, and just familiarized ourselves. I think that the second or third song that we did was ‘The Letter,’ and he came in right at the top and his horn was still in its case and stuff. He gave the finger [signal], ‘Keep going, keep going.’”
Keys got his horn put together in time, walked up and blasted that solo.
“It was just like, ‘Oh my God, that sound. It’s the sound. It’s not like the sound, it’s the sound,’” says Baird. “It was completely amazing. We did ‘The Wanderer’ right after that and it was like...I’m 62 years old — I was six years old when the song came out and Bobby was 16 when he played on it. It’s still one of the time stopping moments of my life. It is just like, ‘Oh my God, there it is.’ We all decided that we would do this as long as we could and to find two or three guys that could be our backups if we had to go be working. So we had a somewhat revolving lineup, but that was the core lineup for the first couple of years.”
After playing gigs in the Nashville area, Keys took the band out on tour for a few short runs before he passed away in late 2014. Thankfully, the Beachland Ballroom got one of the dates in October of 2012, and it was a memorable evening of songs and stories.
“That’s when he had really started hitting his stride,” Baird says, remembering the Beachland gig. “The only thing that was weird to him was to be standing front and center. It’s just like, ‘There’s a whole lot of racket up there, ain’t there, Bobby?’ [Laughs] It’s just kind of like, welcome to singerland! There’s just nothing but racket in the front and center of the stage and he’s always been a wingman. It’s a lot more controllable out there.”
Baird will be right back there in the middle of the racket at the Beachland on March 1 with his current band, Homemade Sin — a powerhouse group that finds him paired with Jason & The Scorchers guitarist Warner E Hodges, former Satellites drummer Mauro Magellan and bassist Micke Nilsson. The band is out on a rare set of U.S. tour dates supporting Get Loud
, its recently released third studio album.
With the exception of a couple of tracks, Baird and the members of Homemade Sin used Pro Tools and the power of the Internet to assemble the new record.
“I was kind of the ringmaster, which if you knew me, that would make you just laugh out loud,” he says. “I am not quite Pigpen from the Peanuts comics, but not that far away either. I’m kind of a ramshackle guy. But it was like, ‘Okay, nobody else is going to do this. You’ve got to do this.’ Up until mix, I was the guy. I had no practical experience in mixing, [but] I had enough practical experience in sticking a mic in front of a cabinet and moving it another inch or two this way or that way and we built an isolation box, got a stepdown transformer and attenuator and used big old amps and cut ‘em real quiet. It weren’t real hard.”
The band recorded “Get Loud” and “Silver Little Lies” together in Sweden.
“I knew that we needed to be in the same room,” Baird says. “I knew that Mauro, our drummer, would not believe that that wocka wocka had to happen in ‘Get Loud’ that many times — that exact fill. It’s seven or eight times in the song and drummers, if they do the same fill over and over again, they start feeling guilty or weird. But it’s like, ‘No man, that’s the one that’s needed.’ It’s as much as part of the song as anything else. ‘Silver Little Lies,’ because of its dirge-y quality, a little eye contact goes a long way on that. The rest of it that we did, I would put together a demo of the song that had robot drums, a bass line, two guitars at least and a vocal. Some of them were more fleshed out than that. I would send all of the files in Dropbox up to Wisconsin where our drummer lives, he would put on his drum parts and Dropbox them right back and then I would send the same tracks over to our bassist in Sweden and he would put his bass on and then bring them back here and then me and Warner would sit down in the basement and figure out what the hell we needed to do to make it go.”
Listening to Get Loud
, there’s no question that Baird and company were able to figure everything out just fine, and he’s quite satisfied with the results.
“I think we had probably two or three songs on the first two records that possibly shouldn’t have been there,” he says. “They were kind of half-baked songs that we were hoping were better than they were. With [Get Loud], we found that we can go play all 11 songs live. There’s nothing that we wish we had back. Every time I hear ‘Get Loud,’ the recorded version, I go, ‘Man, we should have done that just a little bit quicker’ And I start listening to it and go, ‘No man, that groove is mean. If we speed it up any more, it doesn’t get mean.’”
He says he has the same feeling about the swaggering Stones-y ballad “Don’t Be Wastin’ My Time.”
“I was going, ‘If you sped it up a little bit, it would be ‘Nights of Mystery’ all over again,” he says. “Don’t do that — leave it nice and slow. All of the vocals on that, I promise you, were guide vocals. Some notes got tuned, believe me. They were the ones that caught your sweater. You know, on your walk through the woods, the sticker vine caught your sweater and it’s just like, uh uh, those aren’t going to be there. But it wasn’t a meticulous process. If it makes you stop while you’re listening to it, tune it. If it doesn’t make you stop, let it go. ‘Nothing Left To Lose,’ the second verse there, that’s just not in tune, but it sounds great. You can just hear me caterwauling. But it just sounds like rock. It’s fine.”
Dan Baird and Homemade Sin, the Jack Fords, 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, Beachland Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $15 ADV, $18 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.