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Entertainment Highlights: Texas Songwriter, By Way of Maine

Slaid Cleaves Heads North to New York, and Haverhill

  • Singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves, of Austin, Tex., is to perform on June 30 at Alumni Hall in Haverhill, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)

    Singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves, of Austin, Tex., is to perform on June 30 at Alumni Hall in Haverhill, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves, of Austin, Tex., is to perform on June 30 at Alumni Hall in Haverhill, N.H. (Courtesy photograph)

A dozen years ago, in a review of his five-song Holiday Sampler, the New York Times called Slaid Cleaves “one of the finest singer-songwriters from Texas.”

If you run a Google search of Cleaves, the Maine-bred resident of Austin, Texas, you’ll see that the phrase has gained traction. Nearly every review or interview makes note of the label, usually near a description of Cleaves’ vaguely southern-tinged folk. It’s inescapable.

For his part, Cleaves said he appreciated the blurb, which dates to 2001.

“It’s high praise, you know?” he said in an interview, adding that it means he has been lumped in with artists like Texas legend Steve Earle.

Cleaves is currently meandering his way north from Austin, to Missouri, Kentucky and New York. On Sunday, he’ll perform in Haverhill, at Court Street Arts at Alumni Hall, bringing a fiddle player to accompany him and his guitar.

He’ll be supporting his most recent album, Still Fighting the War , a 13-song suite released this month that’s alternately somber and fun, full of Springsteen-esque tales of hard times contrasted with lighthearted love songs.

Nothing exemplifies the album quite like its third and best song, Rust Belt Fields , in which Cleaves sings about the fallout following the close of a General Motors plant. He tells the story matter-of-factly, neither hiding behind metaphor nor getting preachy. It’s straightforward, and stronger for it.

And the music follows suit, layering flourishes over an uncomplicated acoustic guitar backbone. The tense second half of each verse, when a plinking piano refuses to change notes while the bass shifts, is powerful.

That method of embellishing an otherwise acoustic song with drums, electric guitar, piano and other sounds is standard on Still Fighting the War , and it’s something Cleaves said works to his advantage during stripped-down shows.

“They’re built to work on their own,” he said. “Just voice and guitar. That’s the core.”

His songs work best when that core is highlighted. That generally occurs on the more somber, slow-paced tracks, when there’s less of an opportunity to layer. Songs like the finger-picked Gone work by that measure; the twangier, full-bodied tunes tend to dilute their own power.

That’s one reason Sunday’s show should work out nicely. Unvarnished versions of Cleaves’ songs likely won’t be boring; the heavily produced tracks can be. It’d be interesting to hear the purest distillations of his music.

Cleaves also said shows allow him to take a break from the heartbreak and tragedies of his lyrics to sit back and tell stories, to expound on characters that otherwise only get a few verses and choruses to breathe.

He offered one such story in an interview, about the inspiration behind his new album’s title track, a take on veterans who can’t escape the effects of war after coming home. The track, a bright, major-key song underlined by darker lyrics, was inspired by the 2012 Pulitzer winner in Feature Photography, a group of photos by Denver Post photographer Craig Walker about a veteran who had recently returned.

Before he saw the photos, Cleaves was working on a song about “the feeling of being swindled.” One verse focused on a failed marriage. Another focused on a soldier. But the song wasn’t coalescing.

“As I was trying to just make the song better, and more immediate, and more emotional, I found the photographs really inspiring in that way,” Cleaves said.

So he turned the verse about the soldier into the basis for an entire track. Leading up to the release of the album, Cleaves sold the finished track as a single on his website, pledging to donate all proceeds to Operation Homefront, which provides emergency assistance to wounded veterans and their families.

Lyrically, the song presents a stark view of the after-effects of war, a solid introduction to an album full of characters alternately downtrodden and hopeful.

“Men go off to war for a hundred reasons,” Cleaves sings in the song’s chorus. “But they all come home with the same demons.”

Slaid Cleaves performs at Haverhill’s Court Street Arts at Alumni Hall on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20, and can be purchased from www.alumnihall.org.

Best Bets

∎ In his own bio, Evan Goodrow imagines himself the son of James Brown, if his son was white and “cut his teeth playing the chitlin’ circuit.” The Boston-based artist combines a blues past with an inherent funkiness in his music, often played as part of a trio. As catchy and foot-tapping as much of his music is, though, I’d recommend a trip to his website (www.evangoodrow.com) and a listen to the free track White. It’s a downbeat, touching tribute to Boston Bombing victim Martin Richard that relies more on light acoustic guitar and atmospherics than funky bombast. Goodrow will bring his solo stylings to the Quechee Green tonight at 6:30.

∎ Director Baz Luhrmann’s latest no-holds-barred sensual overload, The Great Gatsby, will be playing through the weekend at the Woodstock Town Hall Theatre, an occasion that Bentley’s Restaurant and vintage clothing store Who is Sylvia? are planning to celebrate. On Saturday, before watching a modern Australian director handle the quintessential tale of what it means to be American during the 1920s, you can head to the restaurant, wearing era-appropriate clothes, for pre-film cocktails and a prize giveaway. After the movie, the restaurant will serve a late dinner and offer entertainment and dancing. The movie plays from Friday through Monday at 7:30 p.m. Head on over. It’s what Jay would have wanted.

Music

∎ The Boston Civic Orchestra, an 89-year-old institution that takes in young musicians, will perform at the Colby-Sawyer Center Theater in New London on Saturday night at 7:30. The program will include Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture and the Cesar Frank Symphony in D Minor, as well as pieces by Zoltan Kodaly and Sergei Prokofiev. It’ll also feature Zlatomir Fung, a 13-year-old cellist who has placed at an international competition and will probably make you wonder what you were wasting your time doing at age 13. Tickets are $25 for adults, $5 for students and can be purchased at 603-526-8243 or at SummerMusicAssociates.com.

∎ Interplay Jazz & Arts continues its five days of consecutive performances today, with a Brown Bag Jazz concert on the Woodstock Village Green. That show is free and starts at noon. Tomorrow, the Interplay Jazz All Stars will play a show at Tupelo Music Hall in White River Junction, which starts at 8 p.m. and includes the creation of real-time visual art renderings in response to the music. Tickets are $20 and can be ordered at tupelohallvermont.com. On Saturday, the Interplay camp’s 60 students will perform music and show off the art they created during their week of camp. That free event takes place at ArtisTree in Woodstock, from noon to 4 p.m.

∎ Rik Palieri, a folk singer and multi-instrumentalist, will perform songs by Leadbelly and Pete Seeger at the Quechee Library at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday. The show is part of the Library of Congress series “Dig into Reading,” and is free.

Theatre

∎ The New London Barn Playhouse’s production of The Music Man, which features the theater’s acting interns, will continue through mid-July. Meredith Wilson’s massively successful Broadway show is the most produced play in the history of the New London venue, showing up at least once a decade since 1962. The show goes on at 7:30 p.m. tonight, tomorrow and Saturday and at 5 p.m. Sunday. It picks back up again on Tuesday night for the second of its three-week run. Wednesday matinees begin at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $18.50 to $39, and $16.50 for students. For more information or tickets, call 603-526-6570, or go to nlbarn.org.

∎ The Children’s Theater will bring The Little Princess to the Upper Valley on Monday, the second of eight kid-focused plays the troupe, which is based out of Lincoln, N.H., will present over the summer. Monday’s half-hour shows will take place at the Claremont Opera House at 10 a.m. and the Plainfield Town Hall at 1 p.m., telling the story of a girl who learns the ins and outs of princessdom (friendship, hope, love — spoiler alert) while in a girl’s boarding school. Shows are recommended for ages 3 and up. Tickets are $6 for individuals or $5 each for groups of 20 or more.

∎ Across the pond, Helen Mirren is acting in The Audience, a reprisal of her role as Queen Elizabeth II from The Queen. And even though the play most recently made news for its star’s profanity-laden rant — while in full costume — against a group of street drummers outside the theater during an intermission, it has garnered outstanding reviews. Tonight and tomorrow, National Theatre Live in HD will re-broadcast the show from London to the Hopkins Center for the Arts’ Loew Auditorium in Hanover. The show begins at 7 p.m., and tickets are $15.

Dance

∎ On Saturday and Sunday, the campy all-male dance troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo will come to the Hop. Tickets range from $12.50 to $50. The Saturday show begins at 8 p.m. and the Sunday show starts at 7 in the evening.

Film

∎ The Hop will also hold an advance screening of the animated flick Despicable Me 2 tomorrow at 7 p.m. The movie features Steve Carell, Al Pacino and that army of little yellow dudes with squeaky voices that your kids love.

Bar and Club Circuit

∎ The Lake Morey Resort will bring in Vermont-based The John Lackard Blues Band tomorrow at 8:30 p.m.e_STnS The next night at the same hour, the resort will welcome the Rick Davis Band from Ascutney, which plays classic rock and country covers.

∎ Jim Yeager & Friends will hit the River Stones Tavern in Quechee on Saturday at 8:30 p.m.

∎ Bentley’s Restaurant in Woodstock will welcome Ed McGee & Chris Bradley at 8 p.m. tonight.

∎ Salt hill Lebanon will welcome back its first-ever musical act, classic rocker Jim Hollis, on Friday as part of its 10th anniversary. The next night, Upper Valley mainstays Dr. Burma will perform at the bar. The shows begin at 9 p.m.

∎ At Salt hill Newport, the acoustic Grateful Dead-inspired band, Alan Greenleaf & the Doctor, will perform tonight at 8:30. On Friday, blues trio The Elmores will play at 9 p.m.

∎ Laid-back rocker Brooks Hubbard will perform at Salt hill Hanover Friday at 9 p.m. On Saturday night, Frydaddy frontman Carlos O’Casio will perform a solo set, starting at 9 p.m.

∎ Jesse’s in Hanover will host The Screwtops, a White River Junction-based band predominately playing classic rock covers. That performance begins at 5 p.m. Friday.

∎ Hanover’s Canoe Club will bring in several artists through the rest of the week, culminating on Saturday with a performance by the folk singer (not the author) Cormac McCarthy. Tonight and Friday, piano players Gillian Joy and Jonathan Kaplan will perform, respectively. All begin at 7 p.m.

Open Mics

∎ Brian Warren and Seth Barbiero host the open mic at Salt hill Pub in Lebanon tonight, starting at 8 p.m.

∎ Chad Gibbs hosts the open mic at the Hanover Salt hill Pub on Monday at 9 p.m.

∎ Colatina Exit in Bradford runs an open mic night on Tuesday at 8 p.m.

∎ The Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon hosts an open mic on Wednesday at 8 p.m.

∎ The Skunk Hollow Tavern in Hartland runs an open mic on Wednesday, beginning at 8:30 p.m.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242. Send highlights information to Highlights@vnews.com.