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Cover Story

Kaleigh Baker is back in town

She's got a new backing band and a more mature sound, and she's bringing it to the Beacham to play a show with Thomas Wynn and the Believers and...

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

It isn't exactly the stained-and-veined decrepitude of the old Hotel Chelsea in New York, but singer Kaleigh Baker's pseudo-suburban domicile just off Chelsea Street in the Audubon Park neighborhood will do for tonight. A row of CDs propped up by two empty Jack Daniel's bottles lines a shelf on the wall, while artistic renditions of Miles Davis and, more locally, Swamburger (looking here like a cross between Fu Manchu and Charles Manson), stare with approval from their respective frames. Two dogs – one named Bird after Charlie Parker, the other simply called Jazz – pick their way around the wires and amplifiers, trying to find their place, often at the feet of Baker herself, amid the rehearsal space. "Glass of wine?" Baker swishes out of the kitchen and past a plate of salami and cheese.

Baker's right-hand man, keyboardist and saxophone player Nate Anderson, is talking about doors – not the Jim Morrison kind, but the thick, quality ones that can block out the late-night thumps of a makeshift home studio. "I just want a big one that I can slam," offers Baker with a cackle.

"All right. Time for business," guitarist Jeff Nolan says as he rises from fiddling with his amp. Well, not just yet. First, there's an impromptu rip through "You Sexy Thing" with the rhythm wall of bassist Erin Nolan and drummer Chris LeBrane to contend with.

The real business of 25-year-old Kaleigh Baker, now souped up with a steady four-piece band referred to as "NEM" (which could mean either neuro-electrical magnetic machine or a colloquial take on them, to hear NEM tell it), is that towering inferno of a voice. If you've heard it, you know it: the spine-climbing ache of a howl alternating with a recoiling growl that seems to knock your heart to the ground and Baker's eyes into a witch's trance. It's the stuff of revivalist snake dances or moonlit strange fruit, depending on the side of the mood you've wandered into. You can never be too sure. Nor can Baker.

"I'm constantly adding new tools to my Swiss Army knife, and that's where the nerves come in," she says. Like on one of the band's new tracks, "Mourning Mail," a rolling and soaring lament that travels up to a cockeyed heaven and right back down screaming to the bottom of a bottle. "I just, for the first time, surpassed four octaves," she says. "Sometimes I hit that note and sometimes I don't, and every time before I hit that note, I'm like, 'Oh, sweet Jesus.' I feel like I'm going to push everything out of every orifice."

Baker's raw, almost carnal approach to emotional bloodletting has won her an impressive following in Central Florida and all the way up the East Coast (she estimates that she's played more than 100 shows this year). Her sepia-toned C.V. boasts a who's who of collaborators, including members of Shak Nasti, Sam Rivers' Rivbea Orchestra and just about any other of the reputable usual suspects cramping corners in Orlando's grind-until-it-hurts rhythmic blues undercurrent. Last year, she released her first EP, The Weight of It All, with producer and engineer Justin Beckler, winning her none-too-subtle plaudits like "a legend in the making" from this very publication. That legend has only grown with the advent of NEM; the band has kicked a brightness and dimension into the caustic croon of her self-professed Irish temper.

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