Slaid Cleaves: A Folk Singer With an Endearing Voice and Stories to Tell

On Thursday Sept. 11, Oneonta received a hefty dose of folk with Slaid Cleaves’ performance at the B Side Ballroom and Supper Club, the city’s classiest joint. With one of the most extensive bars in town, along with a delectable menu consisting of fresh seasonal foods and exotic nightly specials, those lucky enough to have made reservations or arrived early to B Side were greeted with pleasant aromas and tasty meals coming from the kitchen. By the time show time rolled around, the place had filled up quite nicely with lots of fans, as well as newcomers to the classic folk sounds and storytelling they were about to be treated to over the course of the evening. Slaid Cleaves surely did not disappoint in that department.

Getting off to an abrupt start, Slaid was joined on stage by Chojo Jacques on alternating fiddle and mandolin. While Slaid is traditionally a solo performer, Chojo truly rounded out the sound, adding nice touches of sometimes Appalachian-style sometimes haunting-sounding fiddle and mandolin accompaniments. Opening with one of his more popular tunes, “Horseshoe Lounge” Slaid effectively warmed up the crowd with this mellow tune. One element that you must make note of when listening to Slaid is that it is extremely important to pay attention to his lyrics, as each song has a story to tell. Following his next tune “Drinkin’ Days” with a chorus of “My drinking days are over, but I’m still troublebound,” Slaid took the opportunity to compliment Oneonta for the hotel he is staying at that he can walk to from the venue, having a liquor store that he can also walk to that stays open until 10:00PM, the music store across the parking lot where he was able to procure a new capo for this evening’s performance, and its residents being so friendly and welcoming.

After spouting all these positive accounts, Slaid explained that he was going to move on to some sad tunes that will still make the audience feel good and threw in a Woody Guthrie quote to further emphasize his point: “A folk musician’s job is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” That sentiment definitely seemed to resonate throughout the rest of his set. Intermixing stories in between his tunes had the effect of making the audience feel like they were sitting around the campfire devotedly listening to the wonderful stories Slaid had to tell and the songs he wanted to share. Touring in support of his new album Still Fighting the War, Slaid jokingly warned everyone not to listen to the album more than once a week since it will be at least another year until he puts out his next album. Yet of course he shared some material off that new album with the audience including “Whim of Iron” about his Aunt Prudence who had married his 92-year-old uncle, a strong lady ahead of her time living in New York City in the 1960’s; and “Texas Love Song” about how much pride Texans have in their own state. He also threw in some classics, including “Broke Down” which he wrote along with his buddy with whom he used to play in a garage band (the band was called The Magic Rats) and “Wishbones” which was actually a request from a group who had traveled three hours to see this show, so in an effort to not send the group back home feeling disappointed, Slaid obliged. Ending with his signature yodel, Slaid took a break before settling in to the second set.

Again starting kind of nonchalantly without any announcement or fanfare, the audience quickly stopped their conversations when he started with “No Angel Knows”. Segueing from one relatively melancholy tune to another, the next song entitled “Cry” really hit a nerve. With a chorus of “Cry for your mama, Cry for your dad, Cry for everything you know they never had,” tears actually came to my eyes, as I used to see Slaid Cleaves with my mom every time he came into town, as my mom absolutely adored him. She has since passed away, so I took a hiatus from seeing Slaid for a bit myself, not wanting to deal with getting all choked up and emotional at his shows, but this song made me realize it’s OK to listen to his music and feel these emotions.

Honoring an audience request he got for “Everette” during the break, Slaid asked for complete silence before he began, and prayed that he would remember all the words, as this song is extremely lyric-intensive, written by his friend Steve Brooks, about “what poets do”. At one point during this song, someone must have ordered a mixed drink that required shaking, which might have otherwise been distracting to a musician, but thankfully the bartender/owner of B Side, Wayne Carrington, happens to be a drummer, so he just started shaking along to the rhythm of the song. Soliciting any last-minute requests before he began the final portion of his show one fan asked him to play “Sinner’s Prayer” for which he said he might need help with the lyrics, so the fan ended up shouting out the lines that Slaid couldn’t remember.

The last several songs of the second set consisted of songs taking us from Slaid’s humble beginnings in Maine to his instant rise to stardom in Texas. Singing about his childhood neighbor Willie in “Horses” letting us know that “If it weren’t for horses and divorces, I’d be a lot better off today,” the audience was treated to a much-needed chuckle, as this song followed the much sadder number “Green Mountains and Me” about a soldier’s wife missing her husband. Paying tribute to the Texas family who had taken him and his wife under their wings when they first moved to Texas, Slaid sang his well-known tune “New Years Day” which he had written about and dedicated to one of the members of his Texas family. Finishing off the set with his popular “One Good Year” Slaid graciously thanked the audience for coming out on a school night, but rather than bothering to leave the stage before the encore, he made the choice to bypass that process and went right into it. This encore was quite special though, as he and Chojo decided to play acoustically and actually walked through the audience while playing a gospel tune off his new album called “Go for the Gold”. Being a small and intimate venue they were able to walk through the entire place and give everyone a good view and opportunity to hear what they were preaching.

It is rare to see a musician and an audience have such an intimate connection, but it was very enjoyable to see that happening. It was almost as if the boundary between the band and the crowd was nonexistent. From the woman in the front of the venue singing along to every lyric, to the man at the next table over who had never before seen Slaid but kept smiling and saying “Sweet!” Slaid more than satisfied his loyal fans, and gained new ones at the same time. Be sure not to miss Slaid Cleaves the next time he comes to your town.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RoVXYKC_iU]