No one could ever accuse Austin singer/songwriter Slaid Cleaves of being overly prolific. He’s put out only eight albums in 20 years, and one of those was a collection of cover songs written by his favorite unknown singer songwriters. Until now, Cleaves has not released a compilation of fan favorites or a live set, despite the fact that some of his records are difficult to find, out of print releases and he enjoys a reputation as a great performing artist. Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge rectifies that situation to a certain extent by having Cleaves go through his back catalog at a local bar to a rough and ready, appreciative crowd. The only problem is Cleaves does not go back far enough. There are no songs from his first three records on the double disc.
Cleaves builds his set in some sort of crazy quilt pattern that makes little sense, going from a rockin’ number to a story song in the folk mode to a fan request for an old favorite to a country and western yodeling tune without rhyme or reason. But it works. Cleaves, who has been known for tinkering with cars and trucks, takes a pragmatic, mechanical approach to the material. One can presume that the troubadour has learned from the experience of playing these tracks before audiences and has paid attention to the shifts in mood and the buildup of tension that result from the mixing of genres.
One minute, the hometown artist sings a tribute to the bar (“Horseshoe Lounge”) he’s singing in and the crowd of regulars with whom he’s familiar, the next, he’s crooning that his “Drinking Days” are over—and the audience is with him all the way. They know he’s just entertaining them with dramatic fictions or funny stories. The audience listens deeply to the material, you can hear them laugh and sigh at the appropriate moments without being cued. These are fans of Cleaves’ sly and literate style who appreciate well-told tales sung with an intimate flair and a gentle smile.
Because Cleaves’ studio albums are so relaxed and informal, there is little difference between the 20 cuts here and the 19 versions previously released (there is one new song). The ones here are less produced and feature minimal accompaniment. One gets to hear Cleaves’ stage banter, but he really doesn’t talk that much. He’s a bit of charmer, and for the most part lets the songs do the talking. Even when he’s singing about people’s lives falling apart (“Broke Down”) or the death of a brave man (“Breakfast in Hell”), his voice carries the resilience of a survivor—someone who has hit bottom and has learned to tough it out and move on only to discover blue skies.
But boy, can he sing a sad song. After all, the first word of the title is “sorrow”. His self-penned “Cry” will bring tears to your eyes even if you are not sure why. His cover of Karen Poston’s “Lydia”, about a woman whose husband and only son die in coal mining accidents, will make you weep. The two cuts are back to back on the second disc, presumably after an intermission, but they invigorate the audience rather than drain them through Cleaves’ inflections and the way he will rush and then stretch lines for emphasis.
Cleaves also understands when to stop being melancholy. He soon breaks into two yodeling cowboy songs by his old friend, the late Don Walser. There’s nothing like a Western Swing tune with a fella stretching out his vocal chords by singing extended notes which rapidly and repeatedly change pitch to make one feel good inside. Cleaves may not be as good as Walser—few are—but he acquits himself admirably.
Most of Cleaves’ best songs are here: “Wishbone”, “No Angel Knows”, “Wishbones”, “Below”, “One Good Year” and others. He does a terrific rendition of “Black T Shirt”, about a troubled high school drop out from a broken home, that appeared on his last album. While the one new cut, “Go for the Gold” may be a little cheesy (“They use their church to try and separate / But it’s common ground that makes us great”) in a Hank Williams Sr. quasi-religious way, Cleaves’ ecumenicalism goes a long way to making it palatable. He comes off as a genuinely nice guy, and this album does a fine job of chronicling the past decade or so of his career.