I’m not generally a fan of singer-songwriters. When I think of the genre, three images come to mind:
• There’s going to be a song I don’t quite comprehend but everyone else seems to. So I have to pretend to understand it else be thought of as being dense. Worse yet - when everyone seems to like it, I have to pretend to appreciate it as well.
• There’s going to be another song that delivers a moral (political or
otherwise) message. When I hear it, my resentment automatically rises to the surface. I feel like I’m being lectured by a more self-righteous version of my parents.
• Finally, there will be a sappy love song containing a lot of similes, metaphors, poetic language, etc. But no matter how it’s dressed up, it’s still a sappy love song.
So I didn’t have high expectations when I received Slaid Cleaves latest efforts, Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge. Fortunately, my apprehensions were misplaced.
But first, about Richard (Slaid) Cleaves: he’s a singer-songwriter raised in Maine who moved to Austin,Texas. In high school he played in a Bruce Springsteen-influenced band. You can still detect the Springsteen influence in the way he paints some of his characters. He gradually moved from rock to more acoustic and country influences. In 2000, his album Broke Down, along with the title song (co-written with Rod Picott), was a hit on the Americana charts.
Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge is a double-CD recorded at a well-known bar in Austin. It has the feel of an intimate, live show, including clinking bottles and banter between the band and the audience. Besides Cleaves, his ensemble includes Michael O’Connor on lead guitar and Oliver Steck on accordion/trumpeter/harmonica. Their support, while not generally flashy, has a strong melodic sense. They give the songs enough drive and variability to make it interesting without detracting from the intimacy of the setting.