Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

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

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

Released 1977 on Poppy
Reviewed by Rust Phimister, 15/02/2009ce

There's a lot to say for a bit of live sturm-und-drang. However, at the other end of the spectrum, you have those live albums that gain their force not from pumped-up amp volume and wild guitar thrashing, but rather from their artists' ability to capitivate an audience with more rudimentary and intimate means.

In this respect, Townes Van Zandt had few peers. Steve Earle once declared that he would stand up on Bob Dylan's coffee table to praise Van Zandt as the greatest singer-songwriter in America. Quite a compliment and one I'm afraid I share ("I'm afraid" - how British of me). For those of you who haven't turned away in shocked horror at my blasphemy, maybe your curiosity is piqued. Or, more likely, you have experienced the genius of Townes Van Zandt and know that there is almost certainly some merit to these lines.

Townes' strength was his hurt, and I don't think any other American singer-songwriter, maybe apart from Skip Spence and Neil Young (and in the latter's case not always, plus he's Canadian) who poured out such anguish, despair and loss into his songs, certainly with such regularity. But Townes' other strength was his sense of humour, even in the darkest of times. Which means that a Townes Van Zandt song, such as "Pancho and Lefty" or "Lungs" veers from witty to sad to wistful to droll to sardonic to melancholic in the space of just a few minutes. And Live at The Old Quarter contains just about the greatest collection of all his best tracks, making it something of a greatest hits compilation, as well as a demonstration of his unique acoustic guitar playing, wry humour and depth of emotion.

Old Quarter is intimate, with possibly one of the smallest crowds ever to feature on a major live album, a couple of hundred at best. It's so intimate, you can hear glasses smashing, the sound of boots on the floor and murmurs of conversation as Townes is introduced and begins getting ready. When I first popped it into my machine and heard this, I was worried that the noise would distract from the music. Silly me. Barely have the first few notes of "Pancho and Lefty" kicked in and that warm, drawling voice begun wafting across the packed bar than the punters are transfixed, caught by his stirring narration and gentle pathos. It's a great intro, with a great song, and above all it demonstrates just how great a performer Townes Van Zandt was. He didn't need guitar pyrotechnics, stacks of Marshall amps or to leap around a stage in order to captivate his audience. Just that voice, those lyrics, those tunes. And from "Pancho" onwards, he holds his audience like a snake charmer does a cobra. He intersperses tracks with hilarious jokes if the mood gets too intense, raps quietly (and perhaps a tad drunkenly) about this and that, before getting down to the core of the task by reeling out such superb tracks as "To Live is to Fly", "If I Needed You", "Tower Song", "Waiting Around to Die" and "Rex's Blues" (perhaps the highlight of the whole set for me). Some of these are heartbreaking, some, such as "Fraternity Blues", are rib-crackingly funny, and he even demonstrates a stomping gift to let loose and boogie on just his acoustic guitar with real pounders like "White Freight Liner Blues" and "Who Do You Love". To really get the full impact of this unique live show, the latest CD edition, which includes every track played on the night, is a must, and a real boon for any fan of the great man.

But, from the number of tracks with the word "Blues" in the title, you'll have gathered that Van Zandt was above all a man who had inexorably tapped into the darkest reaches of the human soul, and was not afraid to share what he found there with his audience. Townes didn't patronise or simplify: he shot from the hip, delivering his sombre truths and bittersweet musings in elegant prose and poetic turns of phrase, but without ever shying away from harshness, despair or fear. And Live Quarter displays this in the most intimate, up-close and personal way: one man laying his soul at to a lucky, and rapturous crowd. For me, this album is a rare and beautiful treasure.

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