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Music Review: Slaid Cleaves – Sorrow & Smoke: Live At The Horseshoe Lounge

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Once upon a time Slaid Cleaves was asked to write his biography. Summing up his life and career, his response read, “Slaid Cleaves. Grew up in Maine. Lives in Texas. Writes songs. Travels around. Tries to be good.”

He moved from Maine to one of hot beds of music in the United States, Austin, Texas, in late 1991. He has since released eight studio albums and carved out a nice career for himself. Life was not always easy, however, as he worked as a janitor, ice cream truck driver, meter reader, pizza delivery person, and a busker (street musician) in Cork City, Ireland, to name a few; the man has paid his dues.

Over two decades deep into his career, he finally decided to release his first live album. Musicians think big in Texas and, as such, this is a two-disc set. Sorrow & Smoke: Live At The Horseshoe Lounge was recorded, as the album title suggests, at the legendary Horseshoe Lounge in Austin. Cleaves had always been attracted to the old beer joint as his 2000 release, Broke Down, contained the ode, “Horseshoe Lounge.”

His studio albums have been well-produced, full sounding, and musically cohesive. This live album is simple, stripped-down, and mostly an acoustic affair. He provides the vocals and accompanies himself on the acoustic guitar. The support musicians are Michael O’Connor, who plays acoustic lead and electric guitar, and multi-instrumentalist Oliver Steck, who provides the accordion, harmonica, and trumpet sounds.

Slaid Cleaves is a folk singer pure and simple. He wrote or co-wrote 18 of the 21 tracks. While his music is melodic and well-constructed, his lyrics are the focal point of the album. He tells stories about ordinary people, drinking, love, loss, plus he provides political and social commentary. Many of his songs explore the dark side of human existence, but ultimately they offer hope.

The selections span his career. There is the gentle “Hard To Believe” with the accordion floating in the background; the story about the tough guys in high school with “Black T Shirt;” “Key Chain,” which is a clever car song about life old and new; and the melodic “Broke Down.”

The album presents a true concert experience. He has a laid back approach and his banter with the audience serves to enhance the live experience. He even takes song requests.

Slaid Cleaves has traveled many miles and is now enjoying some commercial success. Whether you are a fan or just seeking some new and sophisticated music in the folk tradition, Sorrow & Smoke: Live At The Horseshoe Lounge is an album for you.

 

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