Review: Slaid Cleaves – Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge (Music Road, 2011)
Over the course of twenty years and more than a half-dozen albums, transplanted New Englander Slaid Cleaves has established himself in a league with peers like Bruce Robison, and following closely in the footsteps of Robert Earl Keen, Guy Clark and the rest of the Texas songwriting deans. His studio recordings have been engaging and, starting with 2000’s Broke Down, commercially noticed, but his words gain dimension when shared on stage. Cleaves’ songs are not often happy affairs, and his last studio album, Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away, wears its downcast tenor in its title. But even as he sings of romantic vulnerability and social polarization, he manages to warm the weariness and fatalism. Much like Springsteen’s socially critical anthems, Cleaves’ hummable melodies and chorus hooks often disguise darker truths within.
This two-disc live set opens with “Hard to Believe,” a gut-punch portrait of an industrial town in decline, amid a country much of whose moral compass is in free spin. Cleaves sings despondent lyrics with a voice choked with disbelief, threading personal loss among the emotional wreckage he sees all about. Even if you were busy ordering your first drink of the evening, the half-smile in Cleaves’ voice couldn’t hide the acidity of America’s widening class war: hookers on a Christmas stroll, rootless blue collar workers, senior citizens slinging hash, and young boys sent off to defend corporate riches. The applause that follows suggests an audience not quite sure how to laud the songwriter’s craft while still mulling the dire images he’s painted. The quandary is dispelled as Cleaves launches into “Horseshoe Lounge,” holding an affectionate mirror up to the bar’s patrons.
The twenty-one tracks are collected from two stripped-down performances in which Cleaves accompanied himself on guitar, with acoustic leads and harmony vocals by Michael O’Connor, and accordion, harmonica and trumpet from Oliver Steck. Cleaves sings strongly and clearly, inviting audience members to join him here and there, and leaving much to mull over on the drive home. There’s a former drinker whose problems are deeper than a whiskey glass, a town drowned beneath a man-made lake, the jagged remains of a shattered marriage, tough times with no easy exit, and deaths at work and war. There are lighter moments, including the Loudon Wainwright-styled folk-waltz “Tumbleweed Stew” a yodeling tribute to Don Wasler, and the new title, “Go for the Gold,” but it’s the tour through the darker parts of Cleaves’ catalog that pays the richest dividends.