Photo: Michael Devlin
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Slaid Cleaves with Rod Picott
The Brokerage, Bellmore, New York
September 19, 2001
A week and a day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, I wondered if the show would go on. Slaid Cleaves had been in California on the weekend. He had been on the road for the twenty months since the release of Broke Down, and continued with his busy schedule through the week after the attack. Earlier, I had heard Stacey Earle on NPR, talking about what it was like to take the stage at this time. Although it was extremely difficult, performing was the best that she had to give. When I spoke to Cleaves before the show he said that he had heard the same interview and that he also found it hard to do his show the first few nights after the attack. When he took the stage at The Brokerage, he thanked the audience for coming and seemed genuinely humbled by the applause that seemed to embrace him like a hug that lasts a second or two longer than expected. He told the crowd that his songs, which so often deal with people seeking grace and hope, now conjure different images to him as he sings. I didn't realize it at the time, but we all waited for the first song with a secret wish that somehow this singer, this poet, would give us something to help us start to heal. I looked at the audience as he began to sing, and wondered if the guy with the FDNY tee-shirt had lost a close friend, and how many other people may have been similarly wounded. I tried to guess what the first song might be, and if it would be strong enough for these burdened people to grab hold of. Cleaves reached back, way back, to another time that tried this country's soul, to the dust-bowl and Woody Gutherie. The beautiful, still surprisingly poetic words of "This Land Is Your Land" filled the room and the tears started flowing. The usually reticent Long Islanders took the chorus to heart and sang
and started to heal. I was so overwhelmed by what I was feeling and the looks on the faces of the people around me that I almost missed the lines that Cleaves added about a heart of darkness casting hate across the land, and 10,000 nightmares tumbling from the sky. "This Land Is Your Land" has a history of verses being added when performed, and Cleaves's verses are extraordinary in the way they capture the rhythm and idiom of the song, as well as the way in which they crystallize the tragic events and emotions in a few well chosen lines. Leave it to Slaid Cleaves to choose a song with the moral authority of a dust-bowl refugee, and sing it from the heart in his high lonesome, older than his years voice. Leave it to a troubadour to sing the song we needed.
Like myself, much of the audience was very familiar with Cleaves' music and we awaited his songs like the old friends that they are. The new meanings that his songs have assumed were tangible things in Cleaves' face and voice, and in the effect they had on the audience. "Lydia," a song written by Karen Poston about a woman whose husband and twenty years later, her son, were lost in mine fires, was almost too painful to hear in a city where so many people were in the midst of that kind of grief. "Give Me One Good Year" was similarly apropos, with its plea to for a year to "Get my feet back on the ground," that is tempered by the question, "Will your darkest hour write a blank check on your soul?" Cleaves brought some of his songs even closer to the audience by changing a word or phrase to make the songs more directly applicable to the current situation.
Humor, an unimaginable option when the show started, gradually became a part of the show as the evening progressed. It wasn't long before Cleaves turned The Brokerage into the Horseshoe Lounge, with wryly humorous songs and amusing anecdotes. He attributes his one new song (he can't wait to get off the road to start writing again) to an encounter with a neighbor who is like a songwriters research library. He's the kind of guy who has the four-year marriage down to a science, gargles with kerosene and looses money on horses ("If it weren't for horses and divorces
Rod Picott, a boyhood pal with whom Cleaves has written many songs over the years, opened the show. Some of his work was immediately familiar, having appeared on Cleaves' albums. Picott's songwriting seems influenced by Tom Waits, with ironic, iconic songs about sundry characters. His voice and style are also reminiscent of Waits, but his overall effect is gentler and more reflective. Although he self-deprecatingly warned the guitar players in the crowd not to expect anything by watching his hands, his playing is accomplished and full of nice touches. He joined Cleaves near the end of his set for some very enjoyable duo playing. He made quite a few new friends that night and after his set he spent a long while selling and signing his new CD, Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues.
In the shadow of a tragedy so overwhelming, there was nothing more important and necessary than hearing songs that explore the deepest wells of sorrow, and the dignity of human perseverance and hope. It was also good to hear songs and stories that brought us together in the solidarity of laughter. This was a lot more than a concert, but no less than the job and duty of a troubadour in a time of need.Michael Devlin
- The following are Slaid Cleave's additional verses to Woodie Gutherie'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
10,000 nightmares tumbled 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 islands....
Please click here to hear an mp3 of Slaid Cleaves version of "This Land is Your Land."
This file was originally downloaded from www.kpig.com.