Driving to the venue I had to pass the 2,000 capacity 02 Academy which had a Sold Out notice above the door, for a young singer-songwriter that I’d only vaguely heard of; yet Master craftsman Slaid Cleaves was playing at the Cluny (capacity 300) just over a mile away and tickets were still available on the door.
Thankfully there was a good ‘walk up’ for Slaid; but I still despair that our young music fans have such narrow tastes and are influenced by a handful of teenage magazines and social media.
Hey ho; onto the show in hand!
With no support apart from a back catalogue of songs that is second to none; a nervous looking Slaid Cleaves opened the first half of the show with arguably his most popular song; Horseshoe Lounge. The loud cheer at the end didn’t appear to relax the singer who went straight into My Drinking Days Are Over which had a few people near me singing along and it was only when he introduced mandolin/fiddle player ‘Chojo’ Jacques and the roar of approval matched that which had greeted the song did Slaid break a smile.
I was later to hear he’d been surprised to find the venue was ‘standing’ and not ‘seated’ which had caused the initial nervousness; which I found strange as he’s been a regular visitor to the club for 10 years and must know by now that he’s a favourite of the local fan-base.
Looking quite dapper by his normal standards; Cleaves surprised me again by performing the title track of his latest and possibly best album, Still Fighting The War as the third song; and, while not everyone recognised it; the powerful message and easy going style made it sound like they’d known it all of their lives. Again the song received long and loud applause as it ended.
The next few songs also came from the new album and it wasn’t until Whim of Iron which was based on a long time friend; that we got the first of Cleaves’ famous introductions and as expected it was as funny as the song was sweet.
Now fully relaxed Slaid publicised a forthcoming gig by Rod Picott whom he’d first met when they were 9 years old and explained that the song Rust Belt Fields was about his friend’s father and dedicated to working men everywhere.
As part of the story he explained that he had always been a Springsteen fan and the song was influenced by said singer; which got me to thinking that both men write about Blue Collar working men and their lives; but only one of them still lives in a community where unemployment and lack of finances actually effect their neighbours in every corner of their lives.
I was thoroughly enjoying the new songs when Cleaves through another curve ball by reinventing his other ‘signature’ tune Broke Down; making it a touch slower than normal with Jacques’ fiddle playing cutting through the lyrics like a steak knife; leaving me shaking with excitement at the end.
As the applause died down Slaid casually asked if their was anything people wanted to hear - 9 or 10 people screamed out requests at the top of their voices with New Years Day being the first choice and just as he was about to start Twistin’ an audience member collapsed and needed medical attention; causing the set to come to an abrupt end.
As he walked into the spotlight for the second set; it dawned on me; much to my amusement, how much Cleaves now looks like Bobby Ewing aka Patrick Duffy. Before sliding into a heartbreaking version of Cry, he told us that the guy who had collapsed had got bored of waiting for an ambulance and was now in the bar; this was followed by Twistin which was taking the gig into a deep dark introspective place.
When Slaid asked for more requests I couldn’t stop myself calling out for Texas Love Song, from the new album. It took Slaid by surprise and genuinely, wasn’t meant to be a smart-arse choice, as I love the song, but the quirky, fun chorus had the audience chuckling to the clever and silly rhyming chorus and the applause at the end justified my pick.
The songs that followed criss-crossed his career with oldies like Below getting a rare outing and crowd favourite Breakfast in Hell featuring a very loud and raucous “Huh-Uhh” chorus from the more than willing audience.
Another new song; Gods Own Yodeller; about Cleaves’ old friend Don Walser and ended with a pitch perfect yodel of his own. Presumably thinking the loud applause meant the Geordie crowd were yodelling fans he followed with Willie O’ the Wind and Texas Top Hand which both had even more yodelling in their choruses. Thankfully I wasn’t accompanied by my wife; as she would have had to kill him during the third song. (joke).
What had been an amazing concert ended with an unplugged version of Go For Gold when Cleaves and Jacques became wandering minstrels walking through the crowd and never missing a note.
By the time I made my way from in front of the stage Slaid was already at the Merch desk posing for photos, shaking hands, selling and signing scores of albums much to the delight of his fans; old and new.