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Photo: Michael Devlin

Slaid Cleaves link:

Slaid Cleaves

Slaid Cleaves Band
House Concert, Trinidad, California
September 8, 2001

Slaid Cleaves at Winterhawk 2001.Slaid Cleaves is one of those not-quite-country, not-quite-folk singer-songwriters that commercial radio wouldn’t have a clue what to do with even if they were wise enough to play his music. Fortunately, he’s also a road warrior, and has built a loyal following of fans and critics, one town at a time. On Sunday, September 9th, forty lucky people crowded into a Trinidad home to see what all the (well-deserved) fuss is about.

Slaid and his band (Ivan Brown on standup bass, Oliver Stick on accordion, trumpet, harmonica, and piano) played two sets. I can’t remember when an evening has gone by faster.

The first set featured much of Broke Down, his latest release (which has been called the "first great Austin album of the 21st century" by the Austin Chronicle). The second set focused on older material and some well-chosen cover tunes by Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and Don Walser.

Slaid Cleaves is an interesting paradox. A soft-spoken, friendly, happily married guy (his wife Karen is often his road manager), he has a knack for dark tales of doomed characters who refuse to give up, particularly in selections from Broke Down. He sang about the failed marriage of Sherry and Billy in the title tune. "Broke down, cracked and shattered/ left in pieces like it never even mattered." He portrayed the longing of the main character in "Horseshoe Lounge." "I know it didn’t work out the first time we tried/ but I’d do anything to have you by my side again." Yet there’s an optimism running through much of his work, as in "One Good Year." "Just give me one good year/ to get my feet back on the ground/ "I’ve been chasing grace/ But grace ain’t so easily found."

In a live setting, particularly in the intimacy of a house concert, Slaid contradicts these darker songs with some fun audience participation. In a cover of Hank Williams’ "Long, Gone Lonesome Blues" he had the audience yodel (or should I say try to yodel) along. He takes "Breakfast In Hell," the true story of Sandy Grey, a doomed Canadian logger, and then mid-song transforms the crowd into a "lumberjack workgang." Picture forty people chanting "HOO! HAW!" over and over. (Phil, the dog of the house, chimed in and barked along. Guess even he couldn’t resist the draw of this guy’s music.)

Although he has a knack for dark tales, every now and then Slaid slips, and sneaks in a tune that gives away his happy side. Late in the evening, he played "From My Dad," which explains the origins of both his vintage Gibson guitar and his love for music.

Well I don’t know why I like to play guitar
Traveling the country from bar to bar
Living the dream I always had
Guess I must have got it from my dad.

Cleaves is nearing the end of twenty months on the road. "I have a large "honey-do" list at home," he remarked before the show. He hopes to settle back into Austin and begin writing for a new album sometime in early 2002.

Note: There’s an unfortunately memorable epilogue to this particular trek down the West Coast on the Broke Down tour. The Tuesday after the concert was September 11th, the day of the terrorist attack. After spending the morning watching the news, Slaid and the band headed south toward their next gig in Berkeley, unsure if they’d even play that night. By the time their Saturday gig rolled around in Santa Cruz, CA (We drove up from Santa Cruz for the Trinidad house concert), Slaid had written two additional verses to Woody Guthrie’s "This Land Is Your Land":

What a heart of darkness inside a man
Cast this hatred clear across the land?
We gaze in wide wonder, try to understand
This land was made for you and me

In New York City the survivors cry
Ten thousand nightmares tumble from the sky
We ask for answers, we wonder why
This land was made for you and me

This land is your land
This land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream Waters
This land was made for you and me

Please click here to hear an mp3 of Slaid Cleaves version of "This Land is Your Land."
This file was originally downloaded from

—Review by Michael Gaither

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