A welcome return of the American troubadour to the Hitchin Folk Club for the last night of his UK tour – although he still had several weeks in Europe and the USA to go before he finally headed for home. On this excursion Cleaves was accompanied on electric guitar by M.C. Hanson of Danish band The Sentimentals, whose list of collaborators reads like an Americana Who’s Who. Slaid Cleaves has a new album – the excellent Ghost on the Car Radio – to promote, but he opened the first half of the gig with what amounted to a greatest hits set. And why wouldn’t you – when you have songs of losers in life as good as Brokedown and Horseshoe Lounge ? One Good Year perfectly captures the endless loop of repeated years, where the way out of a hopeless situation seems just one small piece of luck away.
Not that the new album was ignored – the slightly funky Drunken Barber’s Hand is at least in part a scathing commentary on the current state of the world – or the state of the nominal leader of the world at least. Primer Grey is seemingly another one of Slaid Cleaves’ car songs – but of course they’re only metaphors, this one is about the tensions between fathers and sons, the importance of the strength under a unprepossessing surface and about rejecting the superficial. Not bad for a song superficially about banger car racing.
Clearly in a hurry to give us all the songs that had been requested in the interval, Cleaves and Hanson retook their places on the stage before the raffle had been drawn – tradition ushered them off again but they were soon back with favourites like Gods Own Yodeller and Lydia – the saddest song ever written by Karen Poston. A good, many-versed, folk ballad, allegedly based on a true story, Breakfast In Hell not only sat well with the venue but also allowed for a communal grunt-along as the work gang set-to on the big log jam “up around the little jog at the mouth of the Musquash river”.
M.C. Hanson’s song for the daughter he didn’t have has, as he admits, shades of Forever Young and Hard Times Come Again No More. This, though, is what Pete Seeger called the folk process – although Hanson forgets this when he stumbles over an accidentally repeated verse. Part of the folk process is that when a song is new to the audience they don’t recognise a mistake. Slaid Cleaves also talked about the folk process when reminiscing about his earliest busking performances which saw him making up new verses to extend songs in his repertoire. He also reflected that he’s played a lot of Tom Petty songs at one time or another, before performing a moving Louisiana Rain.
Slaid Cleaves has been a semi-regular visitor at the Hitchin Folk Club, turning up every couple of years or so and this was as good a gig as he’s ever done. It wouldn’t have hurt the folk ambience to have sat the electric guitar level a little higher, to better appreciate M.C. Hanson’s skillful playing, but that’s one small niggle to set against a night of excellence.