Rayland Baxter and the show for strangers

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Rayland Baxter surprises the crowd with his opening set at the Millennium Center in downtown Winston-Salem. (photo by Spencer KM Brown)

The crowd trickled out onto the dim-lit patio behind the Millennium Center for fresh air, faces held frozen in a look of both confusion and wonder. Pockets of smokers huddled together in the night, pondering what they had just seen. As the vast majority of concert-goers purchased their tickets to see headlining band Greensky Bluegrass, their fandom suddenly shifted to the unlisted opening act, Rayland Baxter.

“I had no idea who that was,” one attendee said, summing up the resounding confession among those at the show, “but now, I’m absolutely a fan.”

Son of pedal-steel player Bucky Baxter, who has appeared on Bob Dylan, Steve Earle and REM records, Rayland Baxter was raised in the musical hub of Nashville and began performing in 2010, making a leap into the music scene when he was featured on country singer Caitlin Rose’s song “Shanghai Cigarettes.” Soon the younger Baxter released his debut album Feathers & Fishhooks in 2012 after signing with ATO Records, which garnered him much critical praise.

When Baxter released his successful second LP Imaginary Man in 2014, he said in the official press release that his sophomore effort was “an audible record of my journey down the bright blue river of imagination. It is a multi-colored dream of song, a sonic bird bath if you may,” and this is precisely the dreamy, folk-infused style of his music.”

After his performance at the Millennium Center on Oct. 25, Baxter stood on the back patio of the club, smoking a cigarette alone. The tall, skinny musician looked around smiling, just taking in the moment.

“Each town is so different,” Baxter said. “Sometimes it’s the tiny ones that have the wildest crowds. Then we come to a city and no one has any idea who we are. Just how it goes.”

Baxter’s music holds fast to a classic bluesy, folk sound, while incorporating moments of Americana and psychedelic elements into his songs; his smooth voice adds an airy, dreamy nature to the music, carrying the listener into the compelling world Baxter has created.

“I want people to feel good when they listen to my songs,” Baxter said. “I want them to be as happy as I am when I write them.”

As he smoked and talked with a few people, a fan came up to Baxter, questioning him about the dark nature of his closing song for the night, “79 Shiny Revolvers,” a track that will be on his forthcoming album.

“If you found it sad or dark, then that’s just how you perceived it,” Baxter said, taking a more serious guise. “If you listen to the words and really hear the music, you might feel different. I can’t tell you how to feel about it, but I know I didn’t write it to be a sad song.”

When he performs, Baxter allows his songs to grow and shift. Where the structure of the songs maintain the scaffolding and design from the recorded versions on the album, the live performance lends to generating perhaps an entirely different song. In a recent interview with AXS Magazine, Baxter described the approach: “Every single one of them have turned into fiery beasts for the live show. I appreciate the evolution of a song, from bedroom to big stage.”

Although Baxter has toured nearly nonstop in the past three years, he is still struggling to find his foothold in the music world. Glide Magazine stated: “With [Imaginary] Man, Baxter feels poised for an onslaught of attention from all angles, including the mainstream.” And yet, the fight to have his music heard remains.

To find music and tour dates, visit raylandbaxter.com.

“The van broke down again on the way here,” Baxter said, laughing. “We’re off to Raleigh tomorrow, we’re just hoping she can hold up another day. We say that every day though.”

For the last song of his set, Baxter’s drummer and keyboardist left the stage, leaving him alone under the dimmed lights. He closed out with the moving, darkly powerful “79 Shiny Revolvers,” which examines a person’s place in the world, amid the deluge and sadness of recent violent shootings. The crowd’s mood shifted from wild enjoyment to awe.

Still moments before the headliner took the stage for the night, another fan came up to Baxter after his set.

“I bought tickets for Greensky,” he said. “Didn’t know who you were, but now, there’s almost no point in sticking around. Nothing can top what you just did in there.”

  • Memphis O

    Purely for the sake of style, I really wish Mac Demarco had never been invented.