Slaid Cleaves sings characters so real you could reach out and touch them--especially if you're sitting on a worn, vinyl-covered stool in a small-town bar, peeling the label from your Miller Lite. And brother, let me tell you, you only think you know heartache.
Take "Lydia," for example, who lost her husband and son in separate mining accidents. Or consider "Everette," the half-mad street poet, or Armando, the betrayed and benighted migrant worker of "Borderline," or any of the loggers who still tell the tale of Sandy Gray's selfless heroism busting up a logjam, and his final words: "Breakfast in Hell."
Cleaves sings these tales with such clarity and compassion, he makes them come so achingly alive, that you forget where you are. At times on Thursday evening, all you could hear besides his song and his band was the rustling whisper of leaves in the Old Town Artisans patio. Other times, the crowd returned Cleaves' banter; he has a story for each song, often as entertaining as the song itself.
Cleaves writes much of his material with friends in Texas and Nashville, Tenn. His 2006 release, Unsung, is a tribute to his co-writers and other undeservedly unknown songsmiths of his acquaintance, featuring their songs along with quips about how he found each of them. Unsung songs by Adam Carroll ("Racecar Joe"), Karen Poston (the harrowing "Flowered Dresses"), Graham Weber ("Oh Roberta," featuring Cleaves' touring multi-instrumentalist Eleanor Whitmore on keyboard) and others constituted about a third of the set. The audience was even treated to an Unsung song performed by its author: Cleaves guitarist Michael O'Connor sang his "Devil's Lullaby." Frequent co-writer (and Unsung producer) Rod Picott performed "Tiger Tom Dixon's Blues" in his opening set; Cleaves recorded it on his 2004 Wishbones.
Much of the balance of Cleaves' performance came from his popular 2000 Rounder release, Broke Down, with a couple of entries from Wishbones, including the title track, co-written with Ray Wylie Hubbard. Flaming-haired Whitmore colored each song with tastefully applied highlights of fiddle, mandolin and vocal harmonies. The hit of the evening, though, was a breathtaking cover of a song by the "Pavarotti of the Plains," Don Walser, music's most beloved living yodeler, who established his career in his '60s as a darling of the '90s punk country scene. Cheers and applause began even before Cleaves had finished the extended, and exhausting, yodeling outtro of Walser's "Rolling Stone From Texas."