Slaid Cleaves, Cactus Cafe, February 1

Live Shots

Slaid Cleaves

Cactus Cafe, February 1

Lo and behold, sometimes nice guys do finish first. It makes for better songs if they're battered, bruised, and trod upon, though; no art without pain and so forth. That gulf between art and real life was an acoustic country mile wide Tuesday, as certified nice guy Slaid Cleaves launched his excellent new Philo disc Broke Down to a roomful of appreciative friends, family, and fans. Tupelesque opener "Horseshoe Lounge" peeped some poor schmuck peeling labels off longnecks and lamenting, "I sit and think about you every night." The album's title track visited wedding bands on the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain, and "One Good Year" counseled, "grace ain't so easily found." Cleaves joked that the next song, Don Walser staple "Cowboy Ramsey" -- complete with yodeling and Ivan Brown mounting his upright bass -- got left off Broke Down "for being too happy." Not so the Hancockian "Bring It On," which he noted went from a "hang in there buddy" song to "boy, I'm glad I'm not you." Cleaves called Crystal Pistol/Tearjoint Troubador Karen Poston to the stage for harmony on her Carver-like "Lydia" and a feisty Johnny & June-style duet on "Look Back at Me" from 1997's No Angel Knows. Things really got dark with a spare "This Morning I Am Born Again," Cleaves' turn at a Mermaid Avenue posthumous Woody Guthrie collaboration, and "Cold and Lonely" conjuring the existential dread of vintage Townes Van Zandt. "Breakfast in Hell" related the grim ballad of valiant lumberjack Sandy Gray, the audience happily grunting in unison as per Cleaves' direction, and set closer "Key Chain" was in a major key, but even that couldn't leaven the abandonment-centered theme very much. The second set, heavy on No Angel Knows, was somewhat brighter, thanks in part to the litany of lemons in "Skunk Juice" -- no wonder Cleaves comes endorsed by "Car Talk." Broke Down producer Gurf Morlix, previously coaxing shady, snaky leads out of a hollowbody electric, added sweet steel tears to Hank Williams' "Long Gone Lonesome Blues" and "Kaw-Liga." As Brown climbed back on his bass, Cleaves called out to "Elvis, Carl, Buddy & Gene," but dedicated the jukin' little rockabilly number to his beaming stageside pops. Finally, in introducing "Don't Tell Me" as "my wife's favorite song" from No Angel, Cleaves demonstrated conclusively, as he had all night, that the subjects of his songs and the man singing them could not be further apart. --

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