Although Slaid Cleaves only got a record deal after moving to Austin, Texas, six years ago, his songs are clearly born of his first few decades, when he lived near quieter Portland, Maine. On his recent No Angel Knows (Philo), he paints an all too vivid picture of suffocating small-town life and the struggle to escape it with a series of bleak vignettes about individuals alternately hopeful and downtrodden. The narrator in “Not Going Down” is resolute about not ending up like the array of characters he chronicles, all of them stuck in cycles of depressing complacency, while the husband protagonist in “Dance Around the Fire” suddenly recognizes his own psychic death long after his chance to escape has passed. Cleaves came out of the new folk movement with contemporaries like Shawn Colvin and Dar Williams, but with adept production by former Lucinda Williams guitarist Gurf Morlix he’s achieved a crisp, energetic edge rather than slipping into adult-contemporary mush. He’s got a melodic sense to match his narrative gifts, and he draws as much from rockabilly and Hank Williams (whom his “29” poignantly celebrates) as he does from vintage Bob Dylan. Cleaves sings in a reedy warble, straining charmingly when he stretches out vowels or hits notes at the edge of his natural range–in fact, he sounds a bit like Freedy Johnston. The turf he covers is admittedly familiar, but his sharp perspectives and sharper hooks distinguish him almost as much as his name. Friday, 8 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 773-525-2508. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Tonee Harbert.