By Tanner Kent
---- — Slaid Cleaves on the telephone sounds as unassuming and understated as Slaid Cleaves on the radio.
Granting an interview on the heels of a vacation to Italy and only days before his Mankato debut as part of the Minnesota State University Department of Music's Performance Series, the singer/songwriter sounded relaxed and unencumbered before embarking on a two-month tour with lengthy Midwest and West Coast swings.
He offered his approval for Monday's venue, casually remarking that the intimately structured, 350-seat Elias J. Halling Recital Hall "sounds like something I'd be OK in."
He discussed the premier of his 2013 release, "Still Fighting the War," on the free music streaming website Pandora, saying that he's "trying to keep up" with all the changes in the music industry but adding that his own mission remains the same: "People pay their money, and people get entertained — that's all that matters."
He talked a bit about his new (and widely praised) record, saying it "was a joy to make" and, when asked if his latest effort represented any new directions in his music, flashed the humility that threads throughout his music and interviews: "I've got a pretty limited skill set, so I can't go too far. But this record does have a little more variety."
Then again, "Still Fighting the War" is classic Cleaves.
Though he does venture into political territory — most notably on the title track, of which the roots music review website No Depression said "no one has captured the feelings of a returning serviceman quite as well" — Cleaves peppers his songs with a characteristic lineup of compelling characters, blue-collar ballads and love-torn bawlers.
"Gone" tracks the trajectory of a couple from the intoxication of young love to the devil of dementia. "Whim of Iron" is a character-driven folk tale of a spirited woman who saves poets and churches.
Fluctuating between folk rock, alt country and — yes — even yodeling, Cleaves once again earns his place among America's most complex songwriters.
As written in the Austin (Texas) Chronicle recently, "There are few contemporaries that compare. He's become a master craftsman on the order of Guy Clark and John Prine."
If You Go What Slaid Cleaves concert When 7:30 p.m. on Monday Where Elias J. Halling Recital Hall, in MSU's Earley Center for Performing Arts Tickets $15. Those who wish to purchase tickets online should go to www.mnsu.edu/music. For more information, call the Performance Series office, 507-389-5549.