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CD Review by Taven Wilson: Townes Van Zandt Live at the Old Quarter, Houston Texas

Townes Van Zandt, Live at the Old Quarter, Houston Texas

Recorded in 1973 and released in 1977 on the Tomato label, Live at the Old Quarter testifies to the stark beauty and playful mastery of Townes Van Zandt’s songwriting while shedding a bit of light on the personality of one of the most enigmatic characters to ever pick a folk tune or drawl a country-blues song. Taped on the last night of a five night run at the Old Quarter, a tiny folk club in downtown Houston that often saw the likes of Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Jerry Jeff Walker, and other Texas country greats singing to the sixty or so people that would pack it to the gills, this record is an intimate document of Townes at his performing and writing peak. Sometimes funny, often heartbreaking, Live at the Old Quarter presents an oft-misunderstood artist laying it all down, bare-boned in execution but rich with feeling and a steady craftsmanship that offers a window into the very soul of the singer.
Townes Van Zandt is often heralded as one of the greatest songwriters to have worked with the acoustic melting pot of folk, blues, and country that gained popularity in the late sixties and is yet to disappear. While his popularity waxed and waned during his lifetime, since his early death on New Year’s Day, 1997 interest in Townes’ music has steadily risen and his position in the pantheon of American songwriters is mythical, though tragic. Born to wealth, Van Zandt was subject to insulin shock therapy in the mid sixties by his family in an attempt to curb his manic depression and dramatic mood swings. Left with an incomplete memory and deep psychological scars, Townes’ life would be plagued by drug abuse, alcoholism, and constant wandering. Even with all of these factors working against him, Townes wrote incredible songs. Claiming to have been turned towards serious songwriting by Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” and a huge fan of Texas blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins, Townes’ songs are folk tunes tinged with the music of the regions he was born into, Texas and Colorado respectively, that range from blues numbers to rambling, stream of conscious folk songs and traditional country balladry.
While Townes’ abilities as a songwriter were generally unmatched, he never saw much success financially in his lifetime and worked in relative obscurity. While his substance abuse and mental instability surely played a factor in his level of exposure, one can’t overlook the fact that Townes wasn’t a stellar performer in the popular sense. Never one to put on fronts or to create characters, he was the epitome of the songwriter’s songwriter, straightforward and real to the end, which put him in direct odds with the landscape of popular music at the time. Townes’ personality, in life and music, was a little too close to the ground and the bone to make a big noise at the time, but those who have been touched by his music have heard the natural sincerity and universal struggle in his songs for which his simplistic delivery is the perfect canvas.
That said, one may still wonder about the quality of a live record released by an artist not particularly known for his live shows. All doubts are certainly answered as soon as the record begins and we realize the Townes Van Zandt heard on Live at the Old Quarter is at his threadbare best and the intimate setting allows for the listener to get inside of the songs in ways often blocked by the crash of drums and blaring guitars. Townes the poet is on display here, humor back to back with deep expression of emotion turned by the skilled hand of a master. Telling jokes and doing a few playfully lighthearted numbers (“Fraternity Blues”, Talkin’ Thunderbird Blues) you can tell Townes is having a good time. And the humor plays an important role in a set that is mostly filled with songs that seek deeper truths about life, relationships, and the strange world that was often too much for Townes the man but addressed directly by Townes the writer and singer. Love, conflict, fear, and happiness are all here, celebrated and sought in songs like the haunting “Lungs”, “Loretta”, “To Live is to Fly”, and the heartfelt yearning of “If I Needed You”. Along with some story-songs in that old country tradition (“Pancho and Lefty” “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” “Tecumseh Valley”) are a handful of covers, including Merle Travis’ “Nine Pound Hammer”, Lightnin Hopkins’ “Chauffeur’s Blues” and the traditional “Cocaine Blues”, which speak to the soul of the artist almost as if he’d written them himself, as a well chosen cover always should. Townes’ playing is steady while deceptively complex and his guitar rings clear and true. Even his voice, soon to be worn ragged by booze and smoke, is in fine form with a soulful timbre that cracks just enough when he stretches his range, driving the emotion home all the more. Live at the Old Quarter is almost like a master class in the Texas folk-country scene given in the most appropriate classroom: a hushed and tightly packed barroom with the “cigarette machine and pool table upstairs”.
One of the greatest Townes Van Zandt quotes comes from some long forgotten interview recorded on a crackling tape recorder and featured in the heart-wrenching documentary Be Here To Love Me, in which the singer claims:

“I don’t envision a long life for myself. Like, I think my life will run out before my work does, y’know? I’ve designed it that way.”

Words that ring sadly true, it’s this kind of mentality we hear on Live. A man who puts it on the line for his craft, his art, and is grateful for all appreciation he garners, all the ears turned to listen, no matter how few, because for Townes, like the first song on the third side of Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, it is all For The Sake of the Song.

Album highlights: “Tecumseh Valley” “Lungs” “Rex’s Blues” many more…

Live at the Old Quarter Houston, Texas by Townes Van Zandt is currently on order at the JMU Music Library. Look for it soon!

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