Jeff “Skunk” Baxter has played a lot of rooms in his long career as a founding member of Steely Dan, a Rock & Roll Hall Of Famer with the Doobie Brothers, and touring with the likes of Julian Lennon, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, and many others. But recently, he played one gig at the Birchmere in Washington, D.C., that could have been thought of as having national security implications.
“If [terrorists] had dropped the bomb on the Birchmere, we would have lost half the intelligence community and a good chunk of [the U.S. Department of Defense], because they all came down to see this show,” says Baxter, laughing.
Baxter has had a lengthy and acclaimed career as a musician, starting with Boston’s Ultimate Spinach, Tim Buckley, the influential folk/psychedelic Holy Modal Rounders and, after moving to Los Angeles and becoming a first-call session musician, co-founded Steely Dan before moving on to the Doobie Brothers and a now, finally, releasing his first solo album, Speed Of Heat.
Baxter’s curiosity about sonic processes in the studio led him to ask a friend, who worked at Pasadena, California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, about data compression algorithms and various military applications. It sparked an intense interest in missile defense systems and he is now a self-taught expert who consults regularly for the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. intelligence community, among others in what he calls his “day job.”
He’s also formed a band called Coalition of the Willing, mostly made up of military and diplomatic corps members with music chops, that supports projects including the CIA Family Fund and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation that provide educational and other support for those who have lost a family member in their country’s service.
But on the civilian front, Baxter continues to bring the goods, as he has since busting out one of popular music’s most memorable guitar solos from Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” to his career-rejuvenating work with the Doobie Brothers.
And he’s not just popular with fans, but with venue staff who sing Baxter’s praises on his recent solo tour – including at the Birchmere, despite the heavy presence of intelligence and DoD feds.
“The show was excellent,” Birchmere talent buyer Michael Jaworek says. “… Skunk could not have been more gracious to the fans and our crew. The level of musicianship was brilliant (no surprise there!) I hope we may see them again!”
He likely will. Baxter recently concluded a solo tour of the Midwest and tells Pollstar he will announce 2023 tour dates soon.
Pollstar: You’ve toured extensively over the years with other groups, but now you’re out on your own with your first solo album. What’s that looked like for you?
Jeff “Skunk” Baxter: I’ve been out with Julian Lennon and a bunch of other folks kind of as a side guy. But this time, after the release of the album, we put together an East Coast tour, which was delightful because I got to play at the Iridium, where I used to play with Les Paul all the time.
Then we did a West Coast tour and then we went over to Japan, which was wonderful. We did a kind of a quick Midwest tour. So we’ve been out there playing and telling stories, how we got to where we are, a lot of how we worked on this project together. It’s really a lot of fun.
You must have a lot of stories. You’ve played with just a lot of the greats and not just rock and roll, but blues, jazz and people like Joni Mitchell.
I was working with Joni on a couple of different things. I’ve had the luck, the opportunity, whatever you may call it, to work with a number of different musicians across blues, jazz, country.
I mean, going on tour with everybody from the Doobie Brothers to Johnny Rodriguez to Linda Ronstadt to the Yardbirds; it’s been a delight to be able to play and perform and learn from such an eclectic group of folks.
You are a “first-call” player in the studio, but you’ve been asked to tour with many artists as well. What differentiates a first-call session player from a touring player?
I’m not sure that there is a difference. If you’re a craftsman, a tradesman, that’s what you do. I think you can and you should be able to ply your trade or to support anyone and everyone at the maximum level.
(Toto co-founder) Steve Lukather and I were out to dinner the other day and talking about how we are pretty much the only first-call studio guys who were both in extremely successful bands and also in what you might call the Wrecking Crew version 2.0.
It’s a really great opportunity because, with a foot in both, it means that you’re constantly on top of what’s going on in the recording business. You’re also constantly on top of what audiences are listening to, responding to. It’s a very special place to be.
Yet it’s a very different life to be traveling on a tour bus for months at a time as opposed to waking up in your own bed and heading to the studio.
For me as a studio musician, the thing that was more important to me than anything else was having my stuff together.
And when you walk in the studio, the producer doesn’t give a damn what band you’re in, how many gold records you have. He just doesn’t care. Downbeat is at 9 a.m. You play it right, or you’re fired. Simple as that.
And to me, that kind of discipline was and is very important. Keeps you on the straight and narrow. So I think it was good for me, healthwise as well as careerwise.
You started out in Boston, a college town, and kind of a hotbed for folkies in the 1960s, where you joined the Holy Modal Rounders, who were influential and somewhat notorious.
I was playing bass for Tim Buckley. I was playing with the Holy Modal Rounders. I was doing a show at The Age, a workshop called “Who Is This Guy Gershwin, Anyway?”
There was so much work; so much different, varied stuff. The Rounders had a great history, from the Fugs and Pete Stampfel and all those guys. Roger North, a drummer at the time, invented North drums, which are incredible drums.
And then we found out that the Holy Modal Rounders were sort of an underground band. I mean, you’re not going to get “Boobs a Lot” on the radio. But it was on every college jukebox on the East Coast. They played Bard College a bazillion times and every frat house there was. But it also had great players. It was a cooking band.
You moved on to play with Steely Dan until the band decided to stop touring and, from there, the Doobie Brothers, who’ve been touring for their 50th anniversary.
I was actually playing in three different bands, including Steely Dan, which opened a number of shows for the Doobie Brothers. And the Doobie Brothers had asked me to sit in on one tune, and then two tunes, and then five tunes and then pretty much most of the show.
I was actually out on tour with the Doobie Brothers when I talked to [Steely Dan founders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen] from a festival in Europe, and they asked if I wanted to tour anymore. And when I hung up the phone, I said, “Well, that’s kind of it for me with Steely Dan because I like playing live.” And one of the members of the Doobie Brothers said, “Well, now you’re in the Doobie Brothers.”
Not only did you join the Doobie Brothers but you were responsible for Michael McDonald joining as well.
Tommy [Johnston] was having some health problems. And one night, I think it was at Louisiana State University, we were about to go on stage and Tommy had a really severe stomach attack and could not go on. So we went out on stage, and there’s something like 50,000 people out there, and said, “You got two choices, folks. You can all have your money back, or you can come back in 10 days and we’ll put on a show.” Nobody asked for their money back.
I got on the phone, I called Mike McDonald (who had been doing backing vocals for Steely Dan at the time), and said, “Mike, I’m sending you a one-way ticket to Louisiana, and you need to be in the Doobie Brothers now, or at least for the time being.” And he said OK and flew out.
We rehearsed 10 hours a day for a whole week. We went out and got five encores in that time. It changed the course of the band. Every every once in a while, you have to make a command decision to take a shot. And it seemed to work out fairly well.
It obviously changed the sonic direction for the Doobie Brothers and probably contributed to extending the band’s hitmaking career.
In the same way that [the addition of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham] did for Fleetwood Mac. There are bands that have such deep talent and musical capability that they grow. The Doobie Brothers are an excellent band. They maintain the high standard of performance in music.
The Doobie Brothers were a good time, rockin’ band. I remember during the making of Livin’ On The Fault Line, [drummer] Keith [Knudsen] looked at me and said, “I dropped the snare drum beat in bar 51.” And I thought, “Bingo, you get it.” There was this level of a band where people strive for perfection, which makes perfect sense to me.
“But like I say, my life has been a series of chapters. And that was a great chapter. This is a great chapter. And this whole solo thing, you know, I’m still trying to get my head around it. But it’s great fun. s