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TOWNES VAN ZANDT Live At The Old Quarter

Norman Warwick learns more about

TOWNES VAN ZANDT Live At The Old Quarter

by reading writers such Matt Melis at sites like Paste On Line

Many of us who saw Townes Van Zandt perform live felt short changed by his canon of albums. Often tinny and echoey and over-produced. His recorded songs didn´t stand up alongside of his deliveries of tracks like Tecumsah Valley, , If I Needed You, Loretta and the even more exquisite than most, Rex´s Blues. A cover on a posthumous tribute album was Snowin´ On Raton. In one of our half dozen interviews Townes spoke of how long he took to decide on an appropriate verb to fit into the line about ´promises to you´. He apparently wondered whether to say bring, save, or keep. each word bringing a unique twist to the story.

That wasn´t the line that caught my interest, however. Instead I could never let go of an image in my head, even though I conceded it could be a line about life and death, or a line about new starts, it could have been about that ice-bridge in James Hilton´s novel, Lost Horizon.

Certainly, in his time, Townes crossed many bridges, even they were rarely totally burned, many borders and many boundaries.

To me, he always seemed a man who wanted to please. He always gave me good, solid musical copy whenever I was privileged enough to interview him. He came across as a quiet and studious man, delivering all sorts of quotes in the course of a recorded chat. He was a very literary man, and his songs included may literary techniques such line narratives, reliable and unreliable narrators, scans, rhymes, metafiction and even Death Of Author.

My memories of him are of gigs at The Band On The Wall in Manchester, The Winning Post in York, (each, stellar performances) and at Wembley Country Music Festival (my first ever sighting of him).

They are much more important to me than any of his recordings, though I do agree with a journalist I recently read reviewing a Townes´album.

As Matt Melis stated in his recent  Paste On Line article, ´for many years, the name Townes Van Zandt acted like a secret password. Simply name-dropping the late Texas troubadour initiated one into a small posse of music nerds, outlaw country purists and admirers who may have even cried into their beer while listening to Van Zandt at a dive bar decades ago. That all changed with the rise of streaming platforms, the influence of music blogs and a concerted effort by labels such as Fat Possum Records to keep the cult songwriter’s catalog in circulation. Suddenly, it became commonplace to find a “Townes Van Zandt” divider in record store bins or one of his LPs tucked inside a milk crate housing a dorm room vinyl collection. That’s no small leap for an artist whose music could prove notoriously difficult to track down during much of his own lifetime.

Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas endures as one of several Townes Van Zandt records to have received renewed interest and reached new audiences in recent years. It’s by no means the most accessible boot-dip into the deep trough that is Van Zandt’s silo of songs. Recorded across a five-night stretch at the small Houston watering hole in July 1973, the sprawling double-live album collects 26 songs and spans more than 90 minutes with zero smoke breaks. As stripped-down as the shirtless photo of Van Zandt that adorns the album’s front sleeve, Live at the Old Quarter remains the late songwriter’s most intimate and revealing affair. It’s a time capsule that preserves the mercurial artist scratching at the heights of his considerable powers; documents a rich tapestry and tradition of Texas music; and suggests a welcome alternative to the dominant narrative of Townes Van Zandt as primarily a tragic figure.

Van Zandt’s residency at the Old Quarter features him alone on stage with only a guitar and a saddlebag of what would become several of his signature songs. It’s a far cry from the painful overproduction that plagued many of the artist’s earliest studio recordings. For instance, the original title-track cut of “For the Sake of the Song” from 1968’s debut echoes like Van Zandt singing into a tin can at the bottom of the Grand Canyon during a howling wind. On Old Quarter, however, we can hear all the nuances in Van Zandt’s unconventional country voice—the tenderness, confusion and resignation—as he plucks gently and considers how to be there for a lover. Likewise, Van Zandt had already failed twice on studio albums to do justice to “Tecumseh Valley,” his tragic tale of a coal miner’s daughter. Here, he finally conjures both the heartbreaking tone and appropriate pacing that demand attention be paid to the plight of a fallen woman ignored by society. Both of these performances are definitive takes on essential songs in Van Zandt’s oeuvre.

In fact, most of Van Zandt’s material translates remarkably well to such an intimate setting. Our Mother the Mountain’s “Kathleen” loses none of its bleakness or mystical nature in translation to the stage, the room’s hushed quiet enveloping Van Zandt’s foreboding voice much as the eerie accompaniment does on the studio recording. “Waiting ‘Round to Die” finds its restless stride towards the nearest exit even with slowed playing and no percussion. Similarly, the wicked cardroom parable of “Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold” gains a head of steam purely off the strength of Van Zandt’s mesmerizing phrasing. And the “poet tears” of “Tower Song” transform the Old Quarter from a cowboy bar to a poetry reading, as the songwriter gently reflects on life’s contradicting and fleeting nature. It’s a credit to Van Zandt’s powers as a performer and experience on the road that all of this somehow goes down like a mug to be nursed across an evening rather than a row of random shots that leaves one worse for wear.

Not many live albums owe much to the actual venue and audience featured on the recording. That’s not the case at all with Live at the Old Quarter. Credit Earl Willis, the album’s producer and engineer, for a deft hand that preserves the feel of Van Zandt captivating a famously fickle audience across five sweltering, sold-out nights in Houston with a broken air conditioner. Decisions to leave in announcements about cigarette machines, Van Zandt’s own banter, and the sounds of patrons (minus a few broken glasses) make for an unlikely artifact documenting not only the strange crossroads of hippy and cowboy culture found at the Old Quarter, but also the early ‘70s Texas music scene at-large.

“I’ve never heard it that quiet in here before,” Van Zandt notes after opening with “Pancho & Lefty.” At the time, Van Zandt only had a cult following as a performer and a half-dozen hard-to-find records. This was still nearly half a decade before Emmylou Harris would cover “Pancho & Lefty” and a full 10 years prior to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard sending his most famous song to the top of the country charts with a bullet. And yet, Van Zandt holds court like a favorite son back from a conquering world tour rather than a countless string of bar dates. He disarms the room with talking blues songs and bad jokes between sets, gets the crowd clapping along to hoedowns like “White Freight Liner Blues,” commands their focus during meandering blues meditations like “Brand New Companion” and earns a pin-drop hush during the numbers a bar room might have drowned out had Van Zandt not been spinning some sort of palpable magic.

As a result, Old Quarter also turns into a laconic storytellers session of sorts. Townes Van Zandt places himself squarely in the country and folk scene with an aw-shucks nod to Doc Watson’s cover of “If I Needed You,” retelling a dirty joke taught to him by Jerry Jeff Walker and covering Merle Travis’ “Nine Pound Hammer.” Other bits and pieces have become part of Van Zandt lore and liner note trivia. He confirms that bassist Rex “Wrecks” Bell—a former owner of the Old Quarter—is the subject of “Rex’s Blues” and outs the famed “Loop and Lil” from “If I Needed You” as parakeets. We also learn, among other things, that “Cocaine Blues” was the first song he learned to finger-pick and “Kathleen” was written in Austin on the same night he penned “Our Mother the Mountain.” Little could Van Zandt have predicted that these scattered crumbs would be remembered at all after those hot Houston nights let alone be devoured by fans half a century later as his legend continues to grow.

It’s difficult not to think of Townes Van Zandt as a tragic figure. From the manic depression and cruel shock treatments that wiped out much of his long-term memory, to the demons of addiction that haunted him throughout adulthood, his life played out much like a sad country song.

Refreshingly, Live at the Old Quarter offers a chance to remember Van Zandt as a young travelling musician hoping to keep “free and clean,” as prescribed in “Pancho & Lefty,” rather than mourn him as a rundown desperado who “wears his skin like iron” with “breath as hard as kerosene.” Not yet 30 at the time of the Old Quarter shows, Van Zandt, presumably sober, dials up such youthful exuberance, a goofy sense of humor and respectful humility for what turns out to be a masterclass in showmanship. There’s no inkling in the air that his bright star would soon begin to tarnish like a pair of old spurs.

It would be four years after its recording before Live at the Old Quarter would see a physical release. During those interim years, Van Zandt’s output would slow to a trickle as his addictions took hold, and plans for a new studio album were abandoned as his manager and producer had a falling out over unpaid bills. One of the unintended blessings, then, of Old Quarter is that listeners get to hear Van Zandt perform his next (and arguably last) batch of great songs several years before they’d officially land on 1978’s Flyin’ Shoes. Staples like “No Place to Fall,” “Loretta,” “Rex’s Blues” and a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” all appear here, preserved in Van Zandt’s delicate voice before it thickened and turned into a much different animal. Though the abandoned 1973 studio versions of these songs would get released 20 years later as The Nashville Sessions, those recordings don’t hold a cigarette to their stripped-down and burgeoning Old Quarter counterparts.

Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas begins with a PSA about cigarette machines and wraps with Van Zandt humbly leaving the stage to applause. In between, we witness a rare talent spellbinding a rowdy barroom with subtle, often delicate, songs that speak to life’s highs and lows as Time both nudges us along and gains on us. “I won’t be forgetting you, and you won’t be forgetting me, I know,” Van Zandt promises on set closer “Only Him or Me.” This lyric feels less prescient and more like a grave understatement half a century later, as new generations continue to discover and lean on Van Zandt’s indelible songs of gratefulness and resignation. And Live at the Old Quarter preserves Townes Van Zandt just as we should remember him´.



The primary sources for this piece was written for Paste On Line by Matt Melis. other cointributors have been attributed in our text wherever possible. Matt Melis is a Pittsburgh native who has spent the last two decades writing about music, film, life, and where the three cross paths. When not writing about the arts, he writes fiction and spends time in Chicago with his fiancée, puppy and cat. He’s currently working on a book about one of his favourite albums

Images employed have been taken from on line sites only where  categorised as  images free to use.

For a more comprehensive detail of our attribution policy see our for reference only post on 7th April 2023  entitled Aspirations And Attributions.

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