Veteran musician David Baxter championed Canadian songwriters

todayNovember 17, 2023 1

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A gifted guitarist, a self-deprecating singer-songwriter, David Baxter (pictured in 2017) was a committed mentor to many Canadian musicians over the years and a musical lifer.Handout

On April 2, 2008, guitarist David Baxter was offered a gig in Toronto on three days’ notice and with barely any details attached. He was to show up at 178 Victoria St. by 5 p.m., with a guitar. There would be no rehearsal. He took the job, no questions asked.

It turned out the venue was historic Massey Hall and the assignment was to play in a trio as the opening act for blues guitar legend Buddy Guy. Upon arrival, the nonplussed Mr. Baxter’s reaction to the news was to smoke a joint.

“It worked out fine,” said Toronto blues singer Paul Reddick, a frequent collaborator with Mr. Baxter. “David was musically sophisticated, and learned things quickly and easily.”

In the school of have-guitar-will-travel, Mr. Baxter was at the head of his class.

He died of heart disease and other health issues at Toronto General Hospital on Nov. 4. He was 68. Known as a musical lifer, he performed until the end. When groups of musician friends gathered in his hospital room and played songs communally at his bedside, he directed the sessions and called out chord changes.

Mr. Baxter was a gifted guitarist, a self-deprecating singer-songwriter, a generous producer/engineer and a committed mentor with a terrific ear and a deadpan wit. His advice was often pointed; his musicianship, always on point. “He knew what he wanted in the studio,” Mr. Reddick said. “He was quick and he was thorough.”

And he was complicated. “His doctor at the hospital aptly called him the lovable crusty sort,” said Prince Edward Island singer-songwriter Catherine MacLellan. “He was loyal, and he loved his friends hard.”

If the musician who answered to “Bax” was a curmudgeon, he was also a teddy bear – officially so, as a protégé of acclaimed guitarist David Wilcox and a member of his backing band, the Teddy Bears.

In the 1980s, he co-founded the new-wave band the Sharks with singer Sherry Kean, his girlfriend and future ex-wife. After recording an album that went unreleased because the record label they signed with had failed to pay its recording-studio bill, the Sharks broke up. Ms. Kean, with Mr. Baxter as her guitarist and songwriting partner, went on to win a Juno Award in 1984 on the strength of the single I Want You Back. The two other Sharks (bassist Bazil Donovan and drummer Cleave Anderson) joined Canadian country-rock icons Blue Rodeo as the band’s original rhythm section.

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Attendees at an early nineties music industry event in Toronto included, from the left, pre-fame Alanis Morissette, Liz Doyle, David Baxter, and Cameron Carpenter.Cameron Carpenter/Handout

In the first half of the 1990s, Mr. Baxter worked for music publisher Peermusic in Toronto as a songwriter and talent spotter. There he was an early champion of a future Juno-winning balladeer.

“David was very interested in a song of mine, My Guitar is Haunted, that he wanted to get to Jeff Healey,” Ron Sexsmith said. “It didn’t work out, but he really believed in what I was doing as a songwriter.”

At Peermusic, Mr. Baxter initiated the writing incubator Song Works. One of the participants was a prefame Alanis Morissette. On the liner notes to her landmark 1995 album Jagged Little Pill, Ms. Morissette thanked a number of supporters, including Madonna, Glen Ballard and Mr. Baxter.

For years, he paid the bills as a guitarist on the soundtrack to the CTV series, Degrassi: The Next Generation. He also ran the recording studio Knob & Tube Recording out of the basement of his house in Toronto. Over the past 20 years and more he was a constant presence on the Canadian roots music scene, working in the studio or as a bandmate with Justin Rutledge, Treasa Levasseur, Oh Susanna, Lori Yates, Lynne Hanson, Corin Raymond, Bob Snider, Penny Lang and others.

“He was one of my first believers,” said Ms. MacLellan, a Juno Award winner. “He was my cheerleader and my guide.”

It was not until 2009 that Mr. Baxter released an album under his own name. He wrote the dozen country-styled songs of the acoustic-based Day & Age and recorded them himself with musicians he’d worked with previously.

“I ran out of excuses not to do this,” Mr. Baxter told the Toronto Star at the time. “I have the studio, I have the songs, and after the break-up of a long relationship, I have the heartache.”

Though he had been politely encouraged to stick to the guitar over the course of his long career, his untested baritone was ready to service the weary despondency of such ballads as If That’s What You Want, How Could I Know? and Winter Came Early. The questionable investment of years of Marlboro Gold cigarettes at long last paid off in a dusky vocal ambience.

The album ironically earned him a Canadian Folk Music Award nomination for best new artist. He was 55 years old, and he never had the success his early years suggested was possible. He released just one more album, 2011′s Patina.

“David was sensitive,” Mr. Reddick explained. “It was a sensitivity that one might have to bright lights or crowds or loud noises. With David, there were circumstances where he didn’t have what he needed. But that’s the way musicians are, and that sensitivity came out in his playing.”

David Gavan Baxter was born Nov. 5, 1954, in Ottawa. He was one of three children of career public servant Edward Baxter and homemaker Ruth Baxter (née Gavan). As a boy, he was interested in hockey and football but gave up athletic pursuits in his early teens owing to knee injuries.

He moved to Toronto at 19 to study music at York University. He learned more from a bar-band apprenticeship with the nascent Mr. Wilcox, who had gone solo after a stint in Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s band Great Speckled Bird and playing backup for Anne Murray, Maria Muldaur and others.

“When I was 20, I started playing with David Wilcox every night – four 45-minute sets,” Mr. Baxter said in an interview with the music blog Flying Horse Co. “You got good, or else.”

After a career of ups, downs and detours, Mr. Baxter settled into the role of a Toronto roots music elder statesman. In the late 1990s, he co-formed the twang-rock supergroup Hey Stella with Bazil Donovan, Michelle Josef and singer Lori Yates.

“David was a great singer’s guitarist,” Ms. Yates said. “He knew where to play and how to stay out of the singer’s way.” With a self-titled album to their credit and residencies at a number of clubs, Hey Stella attracted a devoted local fanbase.

Mr. Baxter’s other long-term commitment was as a member of singer-songwriter Corin Raymond’s band the Sundowners, starting in 2003. For 16 years he played lead acoustic guitar, standing to Mr. Raymond’s right on the small stage at the Cameron House on Thursdays, 6 to 8 p.m.

“Once, gushing about him at the Cameron, I told him that I lived vicariously through his solos,” Mr. Raymond recalled. “He looked at me sardonically over the rims of his glasses, and quietly, into his own microphone, said, ‘Me too.’ ”

Mr. Baxter leaves his son, Serge Deming; sister, Elaine Baxter-McLeay; and brother, Michael Baxter.

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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