LIVE: Slaid Cleaves @ Caffe Lena, 5/15/15

June 1st, 2015, 4:00 pm by Greg
 Slaid Cleaves

Slaid Cleaves

Review by Richard Brody

Slaid Cleaves. The name rolls off your tongue and sounds like it must belong to a cowboy, perhaps from one of Louis D’Amour’s western novels. Cleaves might not be a cowboy, but at Caffe Lena, he came pretty darn close to creating the feeling of sitting around a campfire listening to a very talented storyteller spin his yarns, play his guitar and, when it fit, throw in some yodeling.

Cleaves should be a star, and as he wryly noted when he introduced “Broke Down,” “This is the song that took me from total obscurity to relative obscurity.” And like many of Cleaves’ songs, it focused on the hard scrabble lives of workers who are trying to get by while maintaining some sense of dignity despite a few poor decisions.

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Since his arrival in Texas from his birthplace in Maine, Cleaves has developed into a master songwriter whose lyrics have the elegance of poetry and the turns of phrase we find in good short stories. He opened with “Horseshoe Lounge,” an infamous watering hole that intimidated Cleaves when he first moved to Austin, but that he and co-writer Karen Poston used as the setting for a song about a barfly’s failed attempt at romance with a woman who is out of his league, but never out of his mind:

“So here’s to missed beginnings, and things that never start
For these are the ghosts that run around in my heart
When I see that where I’m going isn’t where I want to be
I get the urge to look you up, see if you would come and meet me”

He introduced the humorous “Texas Love Song” with some commentary on Texas Pride that concluded with a statement he saw written on the wall of a men’s room in a Brooklyn bar, “I hate this part of Texas.” And he managed to use “plexus” in various forms for numerous Texas rhymes in the song’s lyrics, but he might have been putting his life at stake back home with the line, “I love you more than Texas.” Perhaps to dissuade any who doubted his love of the Lone Star State, he also gave us a first taste of his yodeling ability as the song came to its conclusion.

The fine art of yodeling was introduced to Cleaves by his mentor, the great cowboy singer-songwriter Don Walser. Cleaves paid tribute to him with “God’s Own Yodeler” – “the Pavarotti of the West.” And then he got down to some serious yodeling on the comical “Horses,” whose concluding line, “If it weren’t for horses and divorces, I’d be better off today.” But it was “Texas Top Hand,” a song written by Walser and Roy Benson, that provided Slaid the opportunity to fully demonstrate some of the yodeling gymnastics that Walser had taught him, while his accompanist, Duke Levine, artfully captured a taste of Benson’s Asleep at the Wheel’s sound on his telecaster. After this workout, Slaid needed a little vocal recovery time, so Levine played a beautiful instrumental “The Stars Look Down.”

Two of the best songs of the evening, “Welding Burns” and “Breakfast in Hell,” spoke to the difficult lives of blue collar workers. In the former, co-written with childhood friend Rod Picott, a son recalls the look of his father’s hands and the inescapable life that was not planned, while in the latter we heard the voice and indomitable spirit of the logger Gray, who lost his life attempting to clear a log jam.

However, the evening’s topper was “Quick as Dreams,” a song told through the eyes of former jockey Tommy Luther, telling his tale of leaving home to escape the depression and becoming a jockey with his friend Sandy Graham.

“We were just 16 years old
We were worth a couple of saddles
And two big bags of grain
The big men owned the horses
And they owned us just the same”

On a muddy track, Graham was thrown from his horse and died a few days later. Luther couldn’t let go of the sight of his young fallen comrade:

She drew me a little picture
Of the lonely rider’s grave
I’ve kept in my bedroom drawer
All these 60 years
I still see that crumpled body
Now I’m too old for tears

After finishing the song, Cleaves told us the story of how the song came to be, and it was every bit as poetic as the song’s lyrics. He had come across the name of Tommy Luther in Laura Hillenbrand’s book “Seabiscuit” and then did some research on Luther. He found out that the racing officials would not let an ambulance onto the racing grounds following Graham’s fall until all the races for the day had concluded. Luther was so incensed by the treatment of his friend, and its probable contribution to his death, that he helped form the first jockey’s union, and for that he was banned from racing for several years. Luther retired to Saratoga Springs, and Cleaves contacted Tommy’s widow, Helen, and spent time visiting with her, swapping stories and singing her some songs.

The evening concluded with Cleaves taking his guitar and Duke his mandolin on a walk through the Caffé, pausing at many of the tables while they performed “Go for the Gold” that lyrically reminds us that despite our differences we are all brothers and sisters. And the Hank Williams-like melody provided just the right amount of swing for an upbeat ending to a fabulous evening of song and stories.

Down at the Horseshoe Lounge
Drinkin’ Days
Take Home Pay
Broke Down
Welding Burns
Breakfast in Hell
Texas Love Song
Road Too Long
Quick as Dreams
God’s Own Yodeler
Horses and Divorces
Texas Top Hand
The Stars Look Down (Duke Levine solo instrumental)
Black T Shirt
New Year’s Day
Go for the Gold

 Slaid Cleaves

Slaid Cleaves

Duke Levine

Duke Levine

One thought on “LIVE: Slaid Cleaves @ Caffe Lena, 5/15/15”

  1. Jim Roe says:

    Richard, Well written! Third time we saw him, he gets better with age. I agree, he should be a star, but some things are better left as is. Great review, keep doing them. Jim

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