Weekday At Bernie's

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Joe Bonamassa. Walter Trout. Warren Haynes. Mike Baker. If that last Bernie Marsden collaborator doesn’t ring any bells, here’s why: Baker is the New York covers band guitarist who won last September’s competition organised by The Blues and Mascot Label Group. On June 24, the American claimed his prize, travelling to Buckinghamshire’s Echo Studios to record a track alongside the ex-Whitesnake guitarist.

It was the kind of prize that money couldn’t buy, and accordingly, when The Blues announced the competition on September 10, we were deluged with over 4,000 entries from across the planet. With each applicant submitting a video of themselves playing an instrument or singing, the final decision fell to Blues editor Ed Mitchell, who picked out Baker’s fret-burning showcase from the slush pile.

“I saw the competition on Facebook,” Baker says. “I followed Bernie on there – I’d been a fan for years – and so I submitted a video. I never gave it too much of a thought, and when I found out I’d won, I was totally floored. It was such an honour that I could not pass it up.”

Baker himself is no slouch on guitar, teaching the instrument in his native New York State and playing with the highly rated covers band, Rust.“I’ve been playing for approximately 40 years,” he reflects, “and I’ve been playing live gigs for 35 years, at least. Y’know, I grew up on bands like The Allman Brothers, Cream, Zeppelin: more of a bluesy-rock type of influence. Nowadays, we play everything from Rush and Zeppelin to old Sugarloaf and Zombies stuff. We do a little bit of everything.

“Bernie is just a great, iconic guitar player,” Baker continues. “And his blues style is something I follow and try to emulate. From the first Whitesnake albums, I’d always been a big fan. I loved the old material and never stopped following it. Jeez, I loved his last album, Shine, but I’m a big fan of practically everything he’s ever done. It’s hard to pick just one.”

The logistics presented some problems (“I picked the winner, only to discover that he lived in the US and didn’t have a passport,” recalls Mitchell. He wanted it bad enough to sort that out and come over”), but Baker made it to Echo last month. “It’s a privately owned studio where I do a lot of my local work,” explains Marsden. “Jamie Masters [producer] and I have worked together a long time. I did the Rory Gallagher sessions [2009’s Bernie Plays Rory album] here. It’s fairly rural and nobody bothers you.

“I’m very pleased to be doing this,” he adds. “It’s unusual and it’s nice to meet different people and do different things, because I’ve been doing this a long time and it’s usually just the same kind of thing. Today is different. I don’t think we expected people flying over from the United States!”

Bernie is an icon. You can’t get more surreal than that.

“I thought it’d be a good idea to bring a couple of [studio musicians] in, becausethenit’sareal recording session. He’s a decent player, so when we overdub, we’ll get him involved in the recording as well. So we’re doing the whole thing.”

The pair’s different guitar styles also proved a good fit. “I’m from the Buckinghamshire Delta, I’m not from Mississippi,” laughsMarsden. “But I know a lot of people who play blues, and the Americans always say to me, ‘I love the way the British guys play the blues.’ There is a difference. I played with Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule only a few weeks ago, and he said the same thing: I love the way you guys play.

Meanwhile, Baker recalls that Marsden’s easy-going nature helped him avoid the studio jitters. “I’ve seen him jam with everybody from Gov’t Mule to Joe Bonamassa,” he says. “And he just seemed like a down-to-earth guy, and I felt like it would be like jamming with somebody at home that I’d known for years. And that’s been the truth. Playing next to him, it was like an out-of-body thing. He’s an icon, and you can’t get anything more surreal than that. I’m still pretty high about the whole thing.”

Baker’s weekday at Bernie’s spilled into a guided tour of the local area. “Not only did we spend time in the studio with Bernie,” recalls Baker’s wife Carmella Allegretto-Baker, “but we also had the pleasure of dining with Bernie and his wife, Fran, and spent Thursday seeing the sights of Oxford with this gracious and fun couple.

“Before seeing the sights of Oxford, Fran brought us to their gorgeous home for tea. We were given a tour of this lovely place. In addition, we were shown many items of Bernie’s musical history, including some of his most cherished guitars that he let Michael play. We can’t thank Bernie and Fran enough for making our time in England so special. We also can’t thank Steve Marsh from Mascot Label Group enough for his diligent legwork keeping the lines of communication flowing smoothly with Michael to make this trip happen.”

Shine is out now via Provogue.