Dave Baxter used to be in a metal band. He wanted a change, “wanted to write music that you can walk along the street humming to”, so he taught himself to sing, started performing, locked himself away to record a set of tunes, then made his first album available online for free. He called himself Avalanche City and Our New Life Above the Ground, released in 2011, featured the smash hit Love Love Love. Its success has let Baxter make a living from his music since.
Other songs percolated for some years before finding their final shapes on 2015’s We Are For the Wild Places. Baxter took to the road for a winter tour for the album and he came through Tauranga on a drizzly night in June. The crowd was diverse in age. There were teens, couples old and young, groups of thirty-something women, parents with kids. I like an all-ages gig for this reason, that kids can go, even if it often makes for a sedate sit-down-and-tap-your-foot kind of listening experience.
Baxter has said that “music about love and hope can be so powerful” and those themes play out throughout his work.
“’Cause-oh- my heart was alone”, goes Ends In the Ocean, the show’s opening song, a lilting tune. “So long captivity for me / ‘Cause with my soul I am free.” Baxter is a Christian and it’s easy for a listener to read ideas of grace and faith into a lyric like this and others on his albums. Fault Lines is also a song of hope: “Just try to keep your feet on the ground / . . . hold on ‘cause all is not lost. . ..”
He’s a dab hand with a love song too: I Need You is a sweet and simple declaration of love. Sunset also: “The dark could never dim your eyes / . . . Oh we’ll steal love songs tonight; it’s only you and I . . .” sung alongside a whistled melody with glockenspiel chuckling underneath.
It’s not all sugar though: Wild Places has grit, including a couple of break-up songs. Keep Finding A Way showed up towards the end of the show, after a droll and self-deprecating introduction by Baxter, at ease talking to the crowd. “Do you believe we pushed too far / And lost our bearings when we lost our hearts”, it goes, capturing the confusion and heels-over-head numbness of the end of a relationship. Inside Out also condenses this everything-is-broken feeling, pairing the lines “We’ve put us through the tests and we’ve failed each one / . . . I’m trying to speak but the words get stuck / . . . This is inside out” with a descending guitar line and claustrophobic drumbeat.
Baxter is big on details and texture. He makes use of a recorded backing track for live shows, played from a vintage tape recorder, and Wild Places I featured a lovely vocal harmony. I would have loved to have seen more of the grunt of Rabbit, where Baxter joined his bandmate on electric guitar, even though some of the best moments were him alone on stage, playing guitar or keyboard; this is the mark of an artist with talent and depth, I always think.
Wild Places’ artwork features wild animals and the idea of wildness is a motif in the songs. “I’m terrified of having a full time job. You get up, you go to work, you come home — I feel really trapped when I’m in that environment,” Baxter told Stuff’s Siena Yates this year. He likes the uncertainty — the wildness — of the musician’s life.
I know what he’s talking about here. I’ve worked the 9-5 in an office and in hospitality, daily counting down the leaden minutes till morning tea, till lunch, till knock-off, but I think he’s drawing a false dichotomy. I’m a teacher now, and the teaching life is anything but 9-5. You want wild places? Come spend time with me and my year 11s on a Friday afternoon while we discuss Catholic ethical principles. Teaching can be drudgery — but in my work as a high school teacher I’ve joined my students in things like jumping off a cliff into a swimming hole at midnight, wandering an art gallery, sitting and listening to visiting novelists and poets, praying, making zines and models, watching films, writing poetry and short stories and talking about God, death, sex, love, philosophy, literature, sport, work, virtue, dreams and fears. Plenty of other professionals would have similar stories about their line of work.
I can forgive Baxter this viewpoint though, seeing as he’s delivered a great album with heart and richness. I rarely buy CDs any more, but I grabbed Wild Places from the foyer, and the tunes drift through the Harris house regularly.
If Baxter ever gets sick of making and performing earthy and nuanced folk-pop, I hope he can find another line of work that satisfies his desire for the wild. Until then, “We will scream out loud/ . . . We are for the wild places”.