Cleaves moved to Austin 21 years ago and has absorbed some of the Texas milieu in style and song. In fact, he recalls Bruce Robison a bit vocally, and one could imagine each singing the other's songs.
Cleaves has a very full sounding, sometimes emphatic, vocal delivery with a bit of a rasp, typically changing it up between softer and more intense delivery within a few bars. That tended to serve him well because Cleaves infused the songs with a sense of drama and tension without making it seem hackneyed or overwrought.
While, of course, trotting out his signature song, Broke Down, mid-way through the first set, Cleaves was more than happy to play a chunk of "Still Fighting the War." In fact, the first set was heavy on the new disc.
Smart move because it is a very solid album. The title track refers to a soldier returned home - scarred - by duty in Iraq. Cleaves displays his working class roots on Welding Burns, a song about the father of the co-writer and his long-time friend Rod Picott, who worked at the now closed Portsmouth Naval Yard.
Cleaves also was more than happy to pay homage to those who shaped him musically. God's Own Yodeler from "Still Fighting" is his take on the late, great Texas singer Don Walser, known as the Pavarotti of the Plains. Cleaves described him to the just about sold-out crowd as his musical mentor. Cleaves took turns on yodeling here and elsewhere. Walser must have been smiling.
And Cleaves also showed a keen sense of humor on another paean to love and Texas, Texas Love Song, a cute novelty song.
Chojo Jacques most capably was Cleaves' sidekick on mandolin and fiddle. He even took one turn solo on a song on fiddle. The musical veteran spiced the songs with seemingly the right ingredient time and again throughout the 1 ¾-hour show.
About the only disappointment was that Cleaves struggled with the words to three or four songs. For the most part, he could be forgiven for that though because at least two of the songs were requests for material he doesn't normally play. His spirit was there, but the lyrics were not always willing.
Cleaves and Jacques ended the night on a very high note with the excellent Go for the Gold from the new CD (although first out in 2011 on the live "Sorrow & Smoke"), which Cleaves referred to as a "gospel song I accidentally wrote." They started at the foot of the stage before winding their way through the center of the room to the back and around the side before heading back to the front. The duo turned in a very engaging reading of the song while connecting with the crowd.
Cleaves may have left his home turf a long long time ago, but with shows like this and fresh material like "Still Fighting the War," he demonstrated why he should always be welcome.