Album Review: Slaid Cleaves — Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge

Juli Thanki | September 15th, 2011

slaidcleavessorrowandsmokeSlaid Cleaves is, as he jokes during some between-songs banter, a “naturalized Texan” who migrated from New England two decades ago and was, at one point, too nervous to enter Austin’s famous Horseshoe Lounge. It’s only fitting, then, that Cleaves, now a veteran of the Texas music scene, would choose to record Sorrow and Smoke, his first live album, at that venue.

The two-disc set covers most of Cleaves’ career to date, from earlier material like “Key Chain” from 1992 album Life’s Other Side to his best-known song, “Broke Down,” to a handful of songs from his most recent studio release, Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away. As a songwriter, Cleaves deftly navigates between pathos and gentle humor, best exemplified when he transitions from  a stunning portrayal of grief in “Green Mountains and Me” to the wry “Horses,” in which the down on his luck protagonist with several ex-wives ruefully states “If it weren’t for horses and divorces/I’d be a lot better off today.”

“Breakfast in Hell,” the tragic—though amazingly catchy, it must be said—story of logger Sandy Gray is a high point of the record, a seven minute epic that includes an accordion interlude from Oliver Steck and audience participation as the chanting logging crew. Most of the record consists of material Cleaves either penned or recorded on previous albums, but when he does bust out his take on a pair of Don Walser covers (“Rolling Stone from Texas” and “Texas Top Hand”), showing off some impressive yodeling chops, it’s a treat. Cleaves closes with a new gospel song, “Go for the Gold;” though it sounds as though the arrangement could still use a bit of refining, it’s lyrically sharp, and might just be the only country song to reference Sikhism.

The album is a treat for longtime Cleaves fans and a solid collection of material for those who want to explore more of his music. Put a cold one on the beer mat that comes in the CD package, crank up the stereo, and it’ll almost feel like you’re at the show, holding down a barstool at the Horseshoe.

4 Stars

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