Slaid Cleaves at the The Slaughtered Lamb (London, 9/26/11)
Years ago, long before I started writing reviews, I turned up for a Slaid Cleaves show at the Borderline in London having forgotten my ticket. As it was sold out there was no chance of buying another on the door but as luck would have it, whilst having a bite to eat at the now defunct ‘Break for the Border’ across the road, Cleaves accompanied by his then ‘side man’ Gurf Morlix came in so I took a chance and explained my predicament to which his immediate response was ‘No problem, I’ll put you on my guest list, what’s your name?’ I was a huge fan before that exchange and since that day, have, if it is possible, become an even bigger Slaid Cleaves fan.
Delighted therefore to have remembered my ticket to tonight’s (also) sold out London show, I was in a packed room sweltering in the unseasonal September heat when Cleaves, somewhat unassumingly walked onto the ‘stage’ and without any introduction whatsoever started playing Hard To Believe, followed by Horseshoe Lounge and then Drinkin’ Days which are the first three tracks on his newly released double album SORROW & SMOKE: LIVE AT THE HORSESHOE LOUNGE.
Noting that the room was ‘a little cosier than the Borderline’ neatly evidenced by the soft seating arrangements and a man literally walking across the ‘stage’ with pint of beer in hand, to take his seat stage left, Cleaves said that he was throwing away his set list and opening the floor to requests. Well, the enthusiastic crowd didn’t need any further encouragement as a slew of song titles were shouted out, so much so that Cleaves had to say ‘that’s enough’ so that he could continue singing……….Lydia written by Karen Poston, about a mining disaster, was first and touchingly Cleaves dedicated it to the community in Gleision, South Wales who had recently suffered the loss of four miners when the shaft they were working in flooded. Continuing with the theme of songs written by friends he sang the rarely performed Call It Sleep (Chris Montgomery) from 2006’s UNSUNG and another Poston song Flowered Dresses.
Giving a shout out for the forthcoming UK tour of his boyhood friend and sometimes co-writer Rod Picott, he played Tiger Tom Dixon’s Blues joking that Dixon’s real name was Elmer Wormell – doesn’t have quite the same cachet for a prize-fighting boxer does it?
Introducing Broke Down as the song that took him from total obscurity to relative obscurity, Cleaves was in relaxed mode throughout the 90 minute set. He related the story of his meeting with Helen Luther the widow of Tommy whose story he tells in Quick as Dreams and how the daughter of Willie, the protagonist of Horses is a chip off the old block, trading in a ‘sugar daddy’ for a much younger boyfriend – I won’t repeat the story here suffice to say it compares brie with cheddar!
Again, seeking requests he satisfied those with Breakfast In Hell – all eight minutes including audience participation, Cry and Key Chain. Amongst others, we heard another rarity Last of the V8’s and as he was introducing Temporary Cleaves asked that no applause follow the song, given it’s sombre subject matter (gravestone inscriptions were his inspiration for this one) and I think that he was pleasantly surprised when no one did clap at the end of it.
One Good Year completed the main set; by this point the crowd was in fine voice, actually truth be told, the crowd had sung along from the second song Horseshoe Lounge showing just how much his music is loved in a city that he has always made a point of visiting during his tours on this side of the Atlantic.
Whilst not exactly an encore (the setting is such that a performer has ‘nowhere to slink off to’) Cleaves decided that he would finish tonight without the PA and completed the night with Go for the Gold which is the only previously unrecorded track, on the new live album. Another ‘keeper’ for sure.
Cleaves may not be the most prolific of writers but he is a wonderful storyteller and his material is always worth the wait. His voice to my ear has always encapsulated a sense of loss and yearning and the blue-collar characters he writes about are so vivid that you feel you know them personally. The tour continues including a second sold out London show – couldn’t happen to a nicer man! Jela Webb