July 7, 2011


Career retrospective is full of stories, conversation, audiences singing and, most importantly, the clinking of glasses.

AUSTIN, Texas — When Slaid Cleaves moved from Portland, Maine, to Austin, Texas, at the tail end of 1991, he landed on South Lamar Boulevard, a few blocks from the legendarily seedy Horseshoe Lounge. But as he points out on his new live album, “It was many years of drivin’ by before I worked up the courage to come in through the door.”

Maybe his New Englander’s reserve got the better of him; one thing most Texans do not fear is walking into a bar. But curiosity and, no doubt, the lure of stories contained within eventually won out, and in 2000, Slaid wound up releasing “Horseshoe Lounge,” an ode to the 46-year-old beer joint, on his breakout CD Broke Down. A turning point in his career, Broke Down transformed Cleaves from feckless Austin singer/songwriter, playing open mics and running sound at the legendary Cactus Cafe to Americana chart-topping, New York Times-lauded (“One of the finest songwriters from Texas”) national touring artist. Oh, yeah, and the 2001 Austin Music Awards named the title track, written with childhood pal Rod Picott, Best Song of the Year.

It had been a rough eight years in Austin for Cleaves, having left the small pond of Portland, Maine, where he'd busked and played bars and started the alt-country (before the term existed) Moxie Men, for the allure of milder winters, a fledgling South by Southwest, and a desire to hone his skills amongst the likes of Joe Ely and Lucinda Williams. But with the Americana radio success of Broke Down and subsequent tireless touring of the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and the Netherlands, Cleaves made good use of the 2000s, connecting to audiences and developing a reputation for sincere and entertaining shows featuring his intimate songs presented with a variety of top-notch instrumental accompanists.

And now, 20 years after his Southwest migration, he’s releasing his first live album — a double disc, no less, titled Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge, on Music Road Records on September 6, 2011.

When he first contemplated a live album, Slaid turned to the massive collection of performance recordings he’s acquired during his decades as a wandering troubadour, traveling from stage to stage and entrancing audiences with tales of lost souls. But he couldn’t bring himself to sort through it all, and decided to do fresh versions.

“I thought, ‘How can I make a live record special?’” Slaid explains. ‘Well, it has to be in a special place.’” It makes perfect sense; so many of his songs reference watering holes anyway. Sorrow & Smoke fully conveys the spirit of an intimate yet jovial crowd: Clinking beer bottles. Laughter. Sing-alongs. Good-natured heckling. “The give and take, this sort of conversation I have with the audience,” he says. And of course, the self-deprecating humor that leavens the singer’s stories of people struggling to make sense of their lives.

“That’s a big part of the show and I wanted to capture that as much as possible,” he says, adding, “I also wanted to give an honest depiction of what my show is like these days.”

Unlike his beautifully realized, Gurf Morlix-produced studio albums, Sorrow & Smoke is a more stripped-down, mostly acoustic affair. South Texas Walk of Fame guitarist Michael O’Connor twangs acoustic lead guitar with Slaid at “the Shoe” while accordionist/trumpeter/harmonica player and all-around character Oliver Steck keeps the crowd on their toes. (Both O'Connor and Steck have ridden many a mile in the van with Slaid over the years.) The plan was for a single disc, but there was so much good material, they decided to pack it with Slaid’s most-requested tunes and “greatest hits” — the ones he likes to joke carried him from “total obscurity” to “relative obscurity.”

Up to now, you had to catch Slaid live or read interviews to hear quips like that. And until you know that side of him, you can’t really appreciate him. He’s the kind of guy who will casually place one of his most requested compositions, “Breakfast in Hell,” about an ill-fated lumberjack, into a category he calls the “narrative workplace disaster song.” (That tune, on 2000’s Broke Down, helped elevate him beyond “relative obscurity.”)

The live album also gives Slaid a chance to fully exercise his yodeling skills, honed through tutoring by none other than his “mentor and hero,” the late master Don Walser. In tribute, he delivers two Walser tunes: “Texas Top Hand” and “Rolling Stone from Texas.” (They follow his “warmup” song, “Horses,” about his parents’ neighbor, Willie Jr., whose hard-luck line is, “If it weren’t for horses and divorces, I’d be much better off today.”)

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that Slaid’s not a morose guy. But he’s a channeler of hurt and heartache, with an uncanny ability to chronicle despair — and beauty — in verses of startlingly simple eloquence. Despite their economy, his lyrics are strikingly detailed. “Just a little cut up on your brow / The principal said don't come back now.” “Your date of grace is due / And you’ve pawned everything you own.”

He’s such a skilled wordsmith he could very easily tell you all about himself instead of hiring someone else to do it. His website has always been a repository of sparklingly told stories that never bear an ounce of untruth, like the one about when he had a whole Austin-to-Nashville plane flight to himself. He and the crew had a fine old time. It’s too bad he recently took down some older chapters, like the heartrending story about how his dog got shot. “Dogs. You gotta love ’em. They are designed to break your heart,” he wrote. Perhaps not coincidentally, the title of his sterling last album was Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away. (The title comes from “Cry,” its opening track. The closer, “Temporary,” is written from tombstone epitaphs; coincidentally, the album’s liner notes were written by one of Slaid’s biggest fans, horror novelist and fellow Mainer Stephen King, who knows from cemeteries.)

Slaid actually did write his own bio once. It reads, “Slaid Cleaves. Grew up in Maine. Lives in Texas. Writes songs. Makes records. Travels around. Tries to be good.” Just like his songs, it speaks volumes with just a few well-chosen words. And sounds so much like verse, you almost want to hear it set to music. Maybe he could drop it into a set at the Horseshoe Lounge. He might have to hurry, though. Like much of funky old Austin, the Horseshoe’s days may be numbered; Slaid says he heard the land it’s on has been bought up by yet another developer.

All the more reason to hold dear this intertwined history of a classic dive bar and a singer who spins classic tales from those who populate such places. Because if everything you love will be taken away, at least musical memories can remain. And if you’ve never been to the Horsehoe or seen Slaid Cleaves perform, with Sorrow & Smoke you’ll still get the picture. Loud and clear.

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