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Cleaves keeps it real

Jax, Long Beach, Cal., April 16, 2023

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

The venue for this night's Slaid Cleaves concert was just a little too clean. His songs, which many times focus on guys way down on their luck, sometimes just scream out for smokey old dark bars. Nobody could legally smoke in here, though, so attendees had to just use their imaginations. Even so, Cleaves' acoustic songs painted vivid pictures of (mostly) hard luck character studies, which differed markedly from the upper-class lives of the venue's surrounding monied community. Even these ritzy ones were able to put themselves in the shoes of Cleaves' struggling people this evening, which made for an eye-opening experience for one and all.

Much of Cleaves' hour-plus setlist was drawn from his excellent new album, "Together Through the Dark." He performed the title cut, as well as other against the tide tales, like "Puncher's Chance" and "Next Heartbreak."

His weren't all sad stories, however. "Put the Shovel Down," for instance, pointed out how we oftentimes dig the holes we're trapped in. We can stop going deeper down, as the chorus states, by simply putting the shovel down. Just stop digging!

Other new songs included healthy and needed dosages of humor, such as the wild woman described with "Terlingua Chili Queen." An older one, "Texas Love Song," describes how this guy loves his girl even more than he appreciates his home state of Texas. Cleaves introduced it by saying how it was a songwriting exercise of sorts where he saw how many words he could rhyme with 'Texas.' Turns out, he found quite a few such rhymes. "Horses and Divorces," finds a man believing he could have been a lot better off financially, had it not been for all his horses and divorces.

Cleaves set the scene with the opening one-two punch of "Horseshoe Lounge" and "Broke Down," two barroom-ready anthems. Yes, Cleaves created a kind of mental odor of cigarettes and alcohol for his listeners. However, he's just so smart in the way he taps into the emotions of his characters. "Arnold Nash" was taken straight from a newspaper article Cleaves read. With that said, though, you were left with the overriding feeling that all of these songs were/are based on true stores because they just came across as undeniably real and believable.

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