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      Slaid Cleaves
      The Acoustic Café
      Bridgeport, CT
      November 30, 2000

Bridgeport, Connecticut is hardly the Mecca of musical nightspots, but the fledgling Acoustic Café is an oasis of sorts. Clearly there is renewal at work, as the old fashioned street lamps and brick lane dividers along Fairfield Avenue—a main drag—quaintly set off new shops, saloons and antique stores. Smack dab in the middle of all this is the Acoustic Café, an intimate little coffee house style eatery that has been bringing some major acoustic talent to the area. And on a recent Thursday night I drove nearly two hours with some friends to catch a rare appearance by up and coming singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves. Anyone intimate with the folk scene knows that Cleaves has been a true "buzz" artist since the release of Broke Down, his third solo album for Rounder/Philo Records. Broke Down commands a tenured position on my list of Top Ten CD’s for the year 2000, aided in no small part by the restrained yet rocking Austin-sounding production, ably provided by Gurf Morlix (longtime guitarist and producer for Lucinda Williams) that perfectly frames Cleaves’ simple yet poignant narratives. Sans the benefit of a band, save for Oliver (as identified by Slaid as a "one name artist"), who accompanied him on accordion, harmonica and even a trumpet, Cleaves nonetheless proved to be an able showman on his own—strumming delicately yet confidently through most of the songs from Broke Down [.wav sound sample on Cleaves’ Rounder website], singing in that gifted voice that may someday gain him star status. Then again, if his voice doesn’t get him there, it will undoubtedly be the Maine-born singer’s striking good looks.

Cleaves’ jet black, tousled hair, neatly trimmed goatee, chiseled features and piercing ice blue eyes had three young women orbiting around him in starry-eyed admiration as they waited for him to sign their CD’s after the show. Garth Brooks eat your heart out. He opened with "Horseshoe Lounge" and followed up with "Broke Down," "Bring It On" and Karen Poston’s heartwrenching "Lydia," that Cleaves has made his own, giving each song slightly new vocal twists and turns while strumming on a vintage Gibson guitar handed down from his father. Given Cleaves’ natural songwriting ability and country folk leanings, he gets my vote as the next great American troubadour in the John Prine tradition. His songs can be equal parts happy and hopeful or dire and depressing, although it’s clear Cleaves does not take himself too seriously. His performance of "Sandy Gray," an otherwise maudlin account of the death of a virile logger, was energetically performed with Cleaves drawing participation from the audience in a logging chant of sorts. Great fun. It was an apt demonstration of Cleaves’ charismatic persona, something the majority of folk artists lack these days. Highlights of the show included covers of a couple of Hank Williams songs, replete with adept yodeling, clear evidence of the depth and range of his remarkable voice, at once sweet and assured. Equally compelling was Cleaves’ stark rendition of Woody Guthrie’s "1913 Massacre" that he handled with aplomb, channeling the legendary songwriter as well as Bob Dylan in the process.

After one more gig in New Jersey Cleaves was heading back to Austin where he makes his home. Hopefully to write songs for his next record, which this writer looks forward to with great anticipation. It’s not every day we discover the next John Prine.—Ralph DiGennaro

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