Texas-born songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt has been more prolific in death than he was in life. About a dozen records have been released since he died unexpectedly on New Year's Day, 1997: "best of" anthologies, collections of unused studio and documentary material, and enough live discs of varying quality to convince you that he's not really dead, he's just holed up in some coffee house with a hit-and-miss sound system.
Aside from a quiet, high-pitched whine that occasionally pops up on the Old Quarter recording, neither of these two new live records suffers from bootleggy sound quality; both were made in the first phase of Van Zandt's professional career, before he took an extended recording hiatus and long before assorted health problems made the troubadour's live performances notoriously uneven. With only a voice, a guitar, and a thoughtfully quiet audience, it wasn't hard for the recordists to document these performances.
Calling them both "new," though, isn't really accurate. Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas is actually one of Van Zandt's best known records, thought by many to be superior even to most of his studio releases. (It's as good a place as any for a Townes novice to start listening.) This new edition is a two-disc set that expands the original LP and improves upon the previous, out-of-print CD, which was issued by the legally iffy import label Charly.
Old Quarter was recorded in 1973 and released in 1977, just before Van Zandt took his decade-long recording hiatus. He had already written most of the songs for which he's known today, and a great many of them are here: "White Freight Liner Blues," which has the flavor of one of those traditional tunes whose authorship can't be traced to anyone; "Loretta," a classic ode to a barmaid; and, of course, the immortal "Pancho & Lefty."
He also shows his facility with the genres of the South. His original "Brand New Companion" is a standard blues form with lyrics that aren't far off from what any blues man would have written. Similarly, his "talking blues" songs echo the sly, irreverent humor and off-kilter phrasing you find in Woody Guthrie's or Bob Dylan's songs of the same sort, even if they sometimes avoid the usual politics. Van Zandt's "Talking Thunderbird Blues," for instance, recounts a good-timer's introduction to the eye-crossing world of fortified wine.
More than just writing enduring songs, though, Van Zandt had a performing style that was hugely influential among "serious" songwriters. On "Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold," his voice fills with portent as he tells the story of a poker game as if it were a saga of mythological forces clashing. The three long verses stream from his mouth in big, monotonous segments, and he hardly stops to breathe until the end of each; his voice carries through the points where other singers would pause for emphasis, making the events sound as important as life and death.
On the dark, cryptic "Lungs," he achieves the same effect by different means. In a style that is now instantly identifiable as his, he pauses after each line, even when a conjunction links two thoughts ("Jesus was an only son/And love his only concept"), and his characteristic poetic rhythms from line to line have the same halting effect. (The song begins, "Won't you lend your lungs to me?/Mine are collapsing.")
That song, which was famously covered by Lyle Lovett on Step Inside This House (incidentally, Van Zandt's between-song patter is a dead ringer for Lovett's, but without the latter's irony), also appears on A Gentle Evening With Townes Van Zandt. This release really is a new discovery: it's a tape of a Carnegie Hall appearance very early in the performer's career (1969, when he only had two records out) that has never previously seen the light of day. As a singer, Van Zandt is fresher-sounding and stronger than in any other live release; he's also far more careful in his guitar playing, likely because of the formal venue.
The disc feels more like a debut than Old Quarter's "greatest hits" set. There's something mildly confrontational about it, a feeling underlined by his intro to "Talking KKK Blues," a Townes original that has never been released. "I was going to do one about Thunderbird wine," he tells the New York audience, but "I figured there were more bigots here than winos." The quip draws subdued, uncomfortable-sounding laughter.
Van Zandt works on lightening the mood later, with a long joke about a man with sexual designs on a nun. It's the only joke he's learned in his career, he says, but at the Old Quarter four years later, he's learned a few more. ("You know what's white and crawls up your leg? Uncle Ben's Perverted Rice.") He always seems to be trying to convince his audience that he's like them — just a regular guy, whose heart isn't quite as overburdened with the cares of the world as his songs indicate. As the audience's reverence on these records prove, he wasn't fooling anybody.
A Gentle Evening With Townes Van Zandt
(CD, Dualtone Records)
Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas
(CD, Tomato Records)