Slaid Cleaves – Schubas (Chicago, IL)
As evidenced by this entertaining but sparsely attended show, Slaid Cleaves is a songwriter’s songwriter. For this solo acoustic gig, the Maine native interspersed covers and older material with several songs from his recent Philo/Rounder disc No Angel Knows.
Cleaves opened the show with the album’s title cut and then headed into the land of the masters with “Katie Dear”, a William Bolick tune popularized by the Louvin Brothers. Cleaves added a humorous commentary midway through the tune: “Have you figured out what’s gonna happen? You’ve got two knives and star-crossed lovers…it’s not gonna be pretty”.
Originals such as the Springsteenesque “Wrecking Ball” and the plaintive ballad “Don’t Tell Me” were surprisingly superior to their recorded counterparts. The combination of Cleaves’ strong voice and an attentive crowd made for engaging performances.
Halfway through the set, Cleaves quipped, “I believe that folk music is one generation continually ripping off the previous generation”. This was part of the introduction to his rewrite of Hank Williams’ “Pictures From Life’s Other Side”. Cleaves went on to explain that he had recently learned that Williams’ version was itself a rewrite of an old folk song.
After a friendly debate with an audience member (Freakwater bassist Dave Gay) as to whether “Ramblin’ Man” was released under Hank Williams’ name or his pseudonym, Luke The Drifter, Cleaves delivered a fine version of the classic. He also sang “First Fall Of Snow”, another song associated with Williams.
Cleaves’ boldest move was unveiling “This Morning I’m Born Again”, which combines an original melody with lyrics written by Woody Guthrie. Other interesting covers included Don Walser’s “Cowboy Ramsey” (including the obligatory yodeling) and Karen Poston’s “Lydia”. The latter, a tragic tale about the deaths of coal miners, held the audience spellbound; no one seemed to move as Cleaves sang, “Lydia, your tears are Heaven’s rain”.