Review: Veteran Supporting Guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter Fires Up His Long Overdue Solo Debut

Jeff “Skunk” Baxter
Speed of Heat
(BMG/Renew Records)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

Press play on the opening track of legendary guitarist Skunk Baxter’s debut solo release and hear…bagpipes? A closer look at the credits clarifies that these are synthesized (could he not afford to pay a live piper?), but the point is made. What exactly is this?

As guitarist/multi-instrumentalist best known for his work with early Steely Dan (he was an original member of the band before Becker and Fagen resorted to sidemen) and the later incarnation of the Doobie Brothers, Baxter’s name should be familiar to anyone interested in ’80s music. He has worked with a wildly diverse batch of artists –from The Beach Boys to Donna Summer, Little Feat, and Stanley Clarke—generally as a hired hand/supporting player. This belated introduction to him under his own name reflects that eclectic musical nature.

From the twisty jazz/rock fusion of the aforementioned opening track titled “Ladies From Hell” which references Frank Zappa in its multiple musical kinks and curls, to a lazy tropical lope through a vocal-less version of Dan’s hit “Do It Again” (almost unrecognizable from the original), and a wild side trip into The Shadows and Jordan Ingmann’s ’60s surfy “Apache” hit (A tribute to the original but on steroids he says), Baxter swings and usually connects with a variety of styles. If some of them are singles and not home runs, well he’s at least out there batting.

Co-produced by CJ Vanston, who also plays a variety of instruments (including those keyboard bagpipes), Baxter calls in friends Michael McDonald (for soulful ballad “My Place in the Sun” with some of the singer’s most emotional vocals) and Jonny Lang (a slinky/brittle blues “I Can Do Without” that finds Lang shifting into Prince-styled falsetto) to assist. Still, this is clearly a forum for Baxter’s six-string skills.

His pedal steel talents are also featured, specifically on an instrumental cover of “The Rose,” best known through Bette Midler’s version, bringing additional sweetness to the ballad with his sensitive touch. He’s less successful going funk-rock with Rick Livingstone doing his best Lou Gramm impression on a by-the-numbers rocker, “Insecurity.”

And while Baxter won’t be confused with Don Fagen anytime, he turns in a surprisingly credible vocal on Steely Dan’s “My Old School,” before taking off on a ramped-up crunchy guitar solo not far removed from those of Adrian Belew.

The lyric-free selections such as the closing title track where Baxter charges into his best Joe Satriani-styled workout connect particularly well. But the long-overdue Speed of Heat solo project proves what Skunk Baxter fans have known all along; you don’t need fret speed to create musical heat.  

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