Living in England, I don’t often get the opportunity to see acts live. Although some artists who have had airplay here do tour (usually small) venues, it’s not often both someone I’m interested in is appearing at a venue that’s very convenient for me to get to. So it was exciting for me when the excellent singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves included the fairly small town where my parents live on his current European tour. It turns out that he’s actually been there before, a couple of years ago, but I missed out on it that time. I’m glad I caught him this time, on the first English stage of his tour.
The venue was not all that prepossessing – a theater attached to a school, with no formal stage, and seating for a couple of hundred. It even offered a bar during the interval. But the acoustics seemed fine, and the intimate atmosphere was ideal for this kind of show. Slaid is very much the travelling troubadour, who best fits under the Americana umbrella, with probably more folk influences than conventional country ones, but his songs are beautifully crafted and his voice is a little rough-edged but distinctive and compelling.
Slaid Cleaves and supporting guitarist/occasional harmony singer Michael O’Connor played great songs, mostly from Slaid’s records, to a raptly attentive audience for roughly a hour and a quarter, interspersing the music with conversation. Everything was as effective live as on record. Highlights included the excellent ‘Drinkin’ Days’, ‘Broke Down’, ‘One Good Year’, ‘Everette’, Karen Poston’s ‘Lydia’, and several songs from Slaid’s latest album, Everything You Have Will Be Taken Away, including ‘Cry’, the song which provides the title, ‘Hard To Believe’, and ‘Black T Shirt’.
A Beatles cover offered in part as a tribute to John Lennon, whose 69th birthday it would have been that day, was slotted in between two of the songs Slaid has written with childhood friend Rod Picott, and introduced with reminiscences of bonding with Rod as self-confessed ‘nerdy’ eight year olds on the school bus up in their home state of Maine.
The request spot was filled by the choice of a couple who had driven three hours to get there, the audience participation eight-minute Canadian folk of ‘Breakfast In Hell’, a tragic and very convincing story song about a lumberjack’s fatal struggle breaking a log jam. Slaid told us he had been trying to drop it from his regular set, but it was obviously requested the previous night in Wales, so he may have to think again as it’s obviously one of his most popular numbers.
It was followed by one of my favorites, the cheerful ‘Horses’, which Slaid explained was written about a 60 year old neighbor of his parents in Maine, reduced to penury thanks to “horses and divorces”. It’s one of the more conventionally country-sounding of his songs, featuring a very effective yodel, and he then moved away from the microphone to accommodate the yodeling cover of mentor Don Walser’s 1960s hit ‘I’m A Rolling Stone From Texas’, introduced with more reminiscences. After that Slaid needed some time to recuperate so handed over center stage to Michael to sing his own song ‘Getaway Car’ which Slaid Cleaves has recorded. He too has a fine voice, and a recovered Slaid joined him on harmonies midway through the song.
He seemed a little unsure as to what to offer for the obligatory encore, saying he didn’t want to end on a downbeat note, but had already played his one cheerful song. Eventually, he took the advice of an audience member, and played ‘Flowered Dresses’, another Karen Poston song from Slaid’s album of covers of songs mainly by his peers, Unsung.
The show was a great experience. Slaid is well worth catching if he comes your way: tour dates are available on his myspace.
The show started with a five-song set from Dan Raza, a skinny English boy with an engaging presence and Americana-infused folk material, who accompanied himself on guitar and occasionally harmonica. The best of his songs were his first number, ‘Bad Luck’, about a woman about to be hanged with a memorable hook (“It’s glory, glory, and maybe Hallelujah”). I enjoyed his segment, although his songs lacked variety in tempo, and the strong Americana/Texas singer-songwriter influence, admirable enough, had encouraged him to write using some Americanized language, which didn’t sound like his natural songwriting voice and definitely jarred on the more personal material like ‘40 Miles From Home’ which was written about living in London,. He definitely shows promise, though.