New Friend Slips Into The Slaid Cleaves Canon

You’ve been home for a couple of years now buddy
But you’re still fighting the war

Singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves brought an old friend to Cafe Nine. He brought a new friend, too, and proved he’s more than a one folkie-circuit-hit wonder.

Cleaves, a Maine-born Austin-based folkie, has made a living on the circuit since releasing his break-out song, “Broke Down,” in 2000. Folkie fans don’t forget that raw yet tender hard-luck song once they’ve heard it. As Cleaves put it from the stage of his winning sold-out performance at Cafe Nine last Thursday night, that song lifted him from “total obscurity to near obscurity.” He has played it ever since, and played it well. (Click on the video to hear a snippet of how it sounded at Cafe Nine.)

He has played a lot of other strong numbers and remained a sought-after performer. But the music hasn’t always ventured far from the predictable folkie-chord-progression or beer-drinking-unfulfilled-life lyrical mold, not enough to catapult Cleaves beyond the confines of singer-songwriters circles.

So I had some skepticism about what I’d hear at Cafe Nine. Would Cleaves be another Eric Andersen, who in 1966 shot to attention with another early-career descending-bass-progression number (“Thirsty Boots”) and never matched it with another memorable song? Would Cleaves bring anything new to a live performance?

Paul Bass PhotoFrom the start of the first of his two sets at Cafe Nine, Cleaves began to dispel that skepticism. It was his first performance at Cafe Nine. He took a look around at the intimate, colorful room, and exulted at what a perfect place it is to perform in. He clearly meant it. He thanked the Baby Boomers in attendance for continuing to come out to his shows a decade or two on. He proceeded to win us over with his energy, some recently released songs, some nice variety—he even yodeled, quite convincingly— and a comfortable connection to the audience.

And he played “Still Fighting The War, from his latest album.

Men go off to war for a hundred reasons
But they all come home with the same demons
Some you can keep at bay for a while
And some will pin you to the floor
You’ve been home for a couple of years now buddy but you’re
Still fighting the war

That was it. Done. Cleaves had now won Cafe Nine.

The song broke his mold to some extent, varied from the predictable I-IV-V folkie chord progression, casting one more forgotten soldier’s story home from Fallujah with its own haunting shadow. (Click the video at the top of the story for a snippet of the performance.)

The obvious comparison was to John Prine’s forgotten-soldier masterpiece, “Sam Stone,” from another generation’s tragic foreign misadventure. Cleaves’ song lacks the gut-wrenching originality of Prine’s (“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm/ where all the money goes/ and Jesus Christ died for nothing/ I suppose ...”). But it packed its own straightforward power. It spoke to today, hanging in the air at Cafe Nine with the promise of buddying up with “Broke Down” for many tours of duty to come.

The bedspread is fraying, faded and tearing apart
Two strangers, holding each other in the dark
Tell me what were you dreaming, How did you think it would end?
How many heroes are scattered out into the wind?
And all the happily ever afters turn to broken dishes and slamming doors
You’ve been home for a couple of years now buddy but you’re
Still fighting the war

Click above to watch Cleaves perform the full song solo on another occasion. He played it at Cafe Nine, as he played all the songs that night, in a duet with Austin sideman and producer “Scrappy Jud” Newcomb; Newcomb’s flowing, bluesy lead-guitar licks added spice to Cleaves’ serviceable, tight strumming and clear, tuneful, just-gritty-enough vocals. Still, it felt as though a full-band treatment, complete with bass, drums, and more electric guitar (such as in this video from another occasion), would have lifted the Cleaves songbook to another dimension. Made you wonder how high Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, say, would fly with “Still Fighting The War.”

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