Accidental tourist... The last time I ran into Slaid Cleaves, he was wandering the floor of the South by Southwest Music Conference trade show. The Austin-based singer/songwriter was alone, and he looked clueless but content, like a little boy lost at a carnival.
Our eyes met, and we shook hands. After a morning of blank stares from strangers, I was happy to see a familiar face. Cleaves, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy his anonymity. And considering how much he's moved around in the last decade (from Maine to Massachusetts to Ireland to New Hampshire and back to Maine, winding up in Texas five years ago), he probably would have had to learn to enjoy his own company even if it didn't come naturally -- which, apparently, it does.
"[SXSW] reminded me of college," says Cleaves. "I never felt like I fit in there. I went to Tufts [University, in Boston], and it was a high-pressure school; everyone was going to be doctors and lawyers. That's what the record business is like to me -- all this high-pressure, fancy suit stuff. I don't feel comfortable around that. I'm not a party guy."
As such, Cleaves hardly seems like the right choice to headline the Gingerman's summer-kickoff crawfish boil Sunday -- or just maybe he is. Even on-stage, Cleaves seems comfortable being ignored. Last January, when he played to a particularly noisy and distracted audience at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, Cleaves seemed to get off on the lack of attention -- he never stopped smiling. Apparently, the year he spent "busking" (playing street corners for spare change) in the seaport village of Cork, Ireland, primed him for nights such as those.
"There's something cool about playing on the street," he recalls. "I don't want to say that you're taken for granted, but it's not the sort of high-pressure, real performance-art thing that you see in New York. It's very low-key. Sometimes, if nobody's paying attention, that sets you free."
The buzz over Cleaves began back in 1992, when he won the Kerrville Folk Festival's New Folk competition, even though the solo singer/songwriter arena was then, and still is, a bit alien to him. Aside from his Ireland experience, Cleaves has always been more band member than bandleader, and around New England he's still known for his role in the roots rock act the Moxie Men.
"I don't know anything about the folk scene, per se -- the whole David Wilcox, John Gorka, James Taylor thing," he says. "I came [to] folk through rock and roll -- through Creedence, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen."
Much like the man himself, Cleaves's music can be deceptively basic. The spare, acoustic folk surface of No Angel Knows, his Philo/ Rounder Records debut, is pleasant enough, but it belies the emotional complexity at its troubled core. Bucolic as it sometimes sounds, the disc is riddled with testaments from the jagged edge of humanity. Its emotionally devastated landscape is dotted with characters doing their best to hang in there as they dangle by a thread. "Jennie had a little trouble way back when," Cleaves sings over a restless hillbilly jig on "Jennie's All Right." "Home to home and back again / Now it's job to job and that's how it goes / Holding onto secrets nobody knows." As it happens, Jennie has her act together more than most of the folks on No Angel Knows, Cleaves included, as he concedes with the line "I've been the loser desperate to win" on the CD's sobering opener, "Not Going Down."
"[No Angel Knows] is real indicative of the two or three years that went into making it," Cleaves says. "Things just kind of got worse and worse when I came to Austin. I kept getting more and more frustrated. I couldn't get any gigs; I couldn't get any people to come out. It had an effect on my writing."
To keep a little money rolling in during the slim times, Cleaves worked manual labor ("filling up Dumpsters") and volunteered as a lab rat for Pharmaco International, an Austin company that tests human reactions to new drugs. At one point, says Cleaves, he was earning up to $120 a day from Pharmaco, though an especially trying round of tests soured him a little on the work. A few months ago, he spent 22 days in isolation, testing an intravenous antifungal medication, and the strange lumps on the insides of his arms have just now vanished.
"[The tests] were a big part of my life for the past few years," he admits. "But they require big blocks of time, and I just don't have that right now."
While his wife, Karen, eventually got used to the idea of her husband playing guinea pig, Cleaves's in-laws were a different story. "My mother-in-law thinks it's terrible," he admits.
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Knowing Cleaves, though, the peace and quiet of weeks in relative seclusion probably suited him just fine.
Etc.... I hate to kick a struggling organization when it's, well, struggling, but the Houston Music Council has again filled its chambers with blanks on the new Volume IV Compilation. By no means is that an indictment of the Houston music scene -- to the contrary. The city's better musicians (with the occasional exception) have long since given up on HMC, which explains why so precious few of them are featured here. In other words, the latest HMC product is, as usual, far from a representative sample of our underrated scene -- thank heavens.
-- Hobart Rowland
Be music to Static's ears at Hobart_Rowland@ houston-press.com.