The Sportsmen’s Tavern in Buffalo, New York is a must visit for any live music aficionado within a reasonable driving distance. This “reasonable” distance can vary based on said aficionado’s passion for live music. The Western New York institution opened it’s doors in 1985 in the states second most populous city and even though the neighbourhood its situated in can appear a little rough around the edges, once inside, that trepidation quickly melts away amid beer bottles clanking and whatever top quality music is emanating from the stage. It’s a two-level setup inside with a full bar on each floor and optimal viewing of the stage from anywhere. Adorning the walls are original paintings and printed portraits of Folk, Country and Americana musicians from the past but whose musical output is timeless. Included are Gram Parsons, Levon Helm and Duane Allman and those are just the ones I recognized. (There are many others). On those same walls are framed show posters from the venue which include but are not limited to Guy Clark, Charlie Parr, Gurf Morlix and Wayne “The Train” Hancock. Add in some neon beer signs, a stale, yet familiar bar smell and a hardened but unexpectedly sentimental crowd and you quickly realize that you are in a special, singer-songwriter’s Arcadia. It was to this place that I decided on a recent October Sunday to leave my home near Toronto and make the two hour car ride down the QEW highway.
The reason? Slaid Cleaves. The 52 year-old singer-songwriter of the Folk/Americana persuasion was born in Washington D.C., raised in Maine and since 1991, has lived in Austin, Texas with his wife and touring manager, Karen. According to his Wikipedia page, before making a living as a touring songwriter, Slaid was a meter reader, a warehouse rat, a groundskeeper and even a human guinea pig for a pharmaceutical company. He has 13 official CD and cassette releases including his most recent, 2013’s Still Fighting The War.
Slaid and his touring partner/lead guitarist “Scrappy”Jud Newcombe kicked the early evening performance off with arguably his most well known song, Horseshoe Lounge off of his breakthrough 2000 record, Broke Down. From that point forward, Slaid settled into a two set performance spanning his career.
He’s a seasoned performer who looks every bit the professional he is up on stage. Slaid has the presence of mind to actually make eye contact with the people he is singing to scanning the audience with meaningful glances as he performs. He has an extremely intimate presence and is also a very generous performer taking spontaneous song requests as well as taking internet requests via social media prior to his performances. He also has the rare ability to make personal connections with his audience. At one point, he asked the crowd who was driving the vintage Chrysler 300 in the parking lot. (Apparently it was a really nice vehicle, I wouldn’t know as I’m not a car guy). A gentleman in the crowd said that it was his and Slaid proceeded to make small talk regarding the beauty of the vehicle. He then went on to play his song Skunk Juice which is about rummaging through a vehicle junkyard looking for parts. There was also a touching moment in the performance when what appeared to be a mother daughter combo requested the Graham Weber penned but Slaid performed Oh Roberta. As Slaid played the popular song, the mother and daughter became visibly emotional for reasons unbeknownst to the rest of us at the show. One just got the sense that that particular tune meant a great deal to them.
Slaid finished his last set with what I gather is a ritual at his performances. He and “Scrappy” unplugged their instruments and walked through the crowd with their guitars and their harmonizing voices for the final number. After the show, Slaid hung around at the merch table greeting his fans and signing Cd’s.
All in all, a magical performance from one of the best songwriters in the game. Sometimes the most vivid beauty hides in some of our most downtrodden neighbourhoods.
- One Good Year
- Horseshoe Lounge
- Black T-Shirt
- Oh Roberta
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