ALTADENA, Calif. Austin, Texas, singer/songwriter Slaid Cleaves' Southern California debut Sunday evening may have been a little on the relaxed side of things, but his originals and honky-tonk standards clearly resonated with the Coffee Gallery Backstage's audience.
Ambling onto the stage wearing beat-up blue jeans, a rose-colored T-shirt and scuffed cowboy boots one of which was bound with duct tape the unassuming Cleaves looked intimately familiar with the hard-luck characters who inhabit his atmospheric story songs, despite his youthful appearance.
He opened with "No Angel Knows," from his 1997 album of the same name, but mostly performed songs from his most recent album, the excellent Broke Down (Rounder), which enjoyed a run atop the Gavin Americana chart earlier this year.
Cleaves played rhythm guitar accompanied only by multi-instrumentalist Oliver Steck on harmonica and accordion. Steck's horn solos, though, were notable more for feeling than technique. Standup bassist Ivan Brown and album producer and guitarist Gurf Morlix, who had been backing Cleaves earlier in the tour, apparently have returned to Austin.
"Horseshoe Lounge," from Broke Down, earned quietly approving cheers, while applause greeted the opening strains of "Key Chain," a sparely invoked story song that was one of the night's stronger offerings, with Steck's harmonica and wailing harmonies giving it the honky-tonkin' feel of a road anthem.
"Horseshoe Lounge" earned approving cheers; like the catchy "Broke Down," it's written from an observational, as opposed to emotional, point of view that works well with Cleaves' light voice.
As visiting South Carolina graduate student John Bolten commented later, "It's real-life stuff, and he puts it to music. He's a storyteller. He's just a great songwriter."
The tonal limitations of Cleaves' voice helped heighten the sense of vulnerability in the winsome "I Must've Got It From My Dad" and especially "Don't Tell Me Not to Cry," an emotionally bare ballad he co-wrote with San Marcos, Texas, songwriter Kent Finlay.
Dedicating it to his wife, Karen, Cleaves emphasized rhythm and repetition of the title line to effectively underscore his emotional points.
He comfortably hit his stride with "This Morning I Am Born Again" (RealAudio excerpt), a Woody Guthrie lyric he set to music. With Steck taking bluesy breaks on accordion and Cleaves contributing occasional foot stomps, it provided the evening's most haunting and potent moments.
However, one of Cleaves' greatest songs, "Breakfast in Hell" (RealAudio excerpt), vividly demonstrated his gifts as a songwriter while highlighting his chief weakness: As a performer, he doesn't seem ready to fully engage the themes he works as a writer. Cleaves' wisecracks with Steck toward the song's end blunted its dramatic impact.
On the other hand, given the consistently dark nature of Cleaves' music when he introduced the stark "Cold and Lonely" by saying, "I'm gonna do a sad song now," the audience laughed comic relief between songs was welcome, and Steck's wisecracks and antics brightened the mood considerably.
Much of his shtick focused on opening act Dan the Dog, who followed jazzy singer/songwriter Josh Hanna. A black-and-white Border collie/Great Dane mix, Dan "sings" make that howls along as his human sidekick strums guitar to ditties about Juan Valdez and the Hill Brothers. The vaudeville-type act's surprising charm was enhanced by its brevity and provided Cleaves and Steck with plenty of joke fodder; at one point, Steck even got down on all fours and howled.
Cleaves was most playful while yodeling on "Horses and Divorces," a good-natured new song that amused the crowd, and Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel #1." His encore yodel through Hank Williams' "Long Gone Lonesome Blues" was similarly endearing and brought the night to a feel-good close.