Townes Van Zandt, Live at the Old Quarter

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

So you know he's an Important Artist, and you even like some of what you've heard by him. Thus, you want a little bit of quality Van Zandt for yourself. But there's seemingly an infinite number of albums out there, all recycling, often in a dizzying array of versions, a very finite body of songs. What to do? For many, this 1977 album of a 1973 solo concert in an intimate club has always been the only solution. Here are deeply-felt versions of the tortured Townes 'finest early songs — "Pancho and Lefty" (probably his best-known), "Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold," "If I Needed You," White Freightliner Blues," "Tecumseh Valley"… it's an undeniably impressive body of work. Forget that his heart didn't give out until 1997 — most of his best work in the last quarter-century of his life was simply new interpretations of his best early work. Further, his studio albums were invariably mucked-up with superfluous arrangements, when the man's strongest suit, at least until his drinking and drugging caught up with him, was his solo acoustic performances. There, his bluesy picking (as on "Brand New Companion"), his bad jokes and loopy personality and his gift for the lacerating talking blues ("Fraternity Blues") stood out as much as his songs. Plus, this comes from a time when an adventurous spirit shared a place in his soul with world weariness and morbidity — the man could really sing before his dissipation took over everything he did. This is the one truly essential Townes Van Zandt album.