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Critic's pick: Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt

Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas

About a quarter of the way through Live at the Old Quarter, the folkish surrealism of Townes Van Zandt's music begins to take hold. The tune is Fraternity Blues, the mere theme of which seems freakish. Just imagining one of Lone Star country's most distinctive songsmiths in the conformist confines of a fraternity is pretty outrageous. But within the song's talking blues narration, Van Zandt, who died in 1997, displays a disarming sense of cunning and a matter-of-fact storytelling demeanor, traits that always underscored the human (albeit, the darkly human) side of his music.

”I'm no trouble causer,“ he says. ”You want good friends? They're gonna cost you.“

With that, Live at the Old Quarter begins a new Americana life. The performances, all solo and beautifully imperfect, were cut at a watering hole in, according to the liner notes, ”the seedy side of downtown Houston.“ The album itself was first issued in 1977 and has floated in and out of print ever since. This new double-disc edition appeared this summer on Fat Possum, the primal roots-music label that began an extensive reissue of Van Zandt's recordings last year.

Live at the Old Quarter is the one Van Zandt album that everyone must own. It contains his best songs (from the rollicking Talking Thunderbird Blues to the ultra-stark Kathleen) illuminated with unadorned, underplayed performance detail.

Take White Freight Liner Blues, for instance. It's been covered a gazillion times, usually as a smartly paced shuffle with progressive country leanings. Here, Van Zandt makes his creation seem as plaintive as a Hank Williams chestnut. When he sings ”going out on the highway, listen to them big trucks whine,“ the voice cracks, almost into a yodel. It's like an alarm that sets you up for a song that, despite its easygoing pace, is consumed with escape and death.

The riches are vast here. Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold summons a suitable sense of card-table drama, and Van Zandt almost shyly remarks before If I Needed You how Doc Watson's rendition of the tune ”really blew my mind.“ But Live at the Old Quarter's greatest strength is the emotional breadth of its material. It is essentially a solo performance anthology of the songwriter's best work, so you witness all of the narrative high-wire act without a safety net.

No Place to Fall proves exquisitely vulnerable, To Live Is to Fly is pure wondrous fancy, Cocaine Blues is restlessly wry, and Who Do You Love becomes a mini percussive hoedown. And when it comes to mining the sheer human desperation of his stories, nothing remains more stirring, sad and unsettling than Live at the Old Quarter's unsentimental reading of Tecumseh Valley. That's when the album's miscellaneous barroom ambience — the clinking glasses, the deliriously out-of-time audience clap-a-longs — evaporates. For 41/2 minutes, it's as if there is no one else in the room.

Live at Old Quarter has been likened by fans and critics to such groundbreaking country concert albums as Johnny Cash at San Quentin. No argument here. My old cassette recording of the former wore out ages ago after years of dashboard listening. Last weekend, during a road trip to see friends in Nashville, this new CD served as a soundtrack. And as the Bluegrass Parkway gave way to Interstate 65 South, right as those big trucks began to whine, Van Zandt, in all his unadorned drama and glory, was alive again.

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