BY JAMES KELLY
People listen to country and folk songs mostly because of the words and stories. They are usually seeking catharsis, and the more profound the statement, the more revered the singer. Townes Van Zandt is the sort of performer that can elicit the most powerful emotions out of a few simple phrases. The enigmatic Texan has been performing steadily since the '60s, and has established himself as one of the most important singer/songwriters in America. He is a standard by which others are measured, and according to his friends, he is one weird dude.
There is little information about Van Zandt's history, other than the fact that he emerged out of the coffeehouse circuit in the late '60s, and released a series of incredible albums that virtually defined a new genre, the "new Texas troubadours." He became the darling of the underground, and his performances were treated as spiritual ceremonies where the simplicity of the setting often melted in the revelation of the show. An example of this is clearly captured in the double live album Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas (Tomato, 1973). In a sweltering, totally packed room, he mesmerized the audience with tales of outlaws, wild women, despair, and loneliness. He kept them silent, and focused, for almost two hours.
That album is a fine sample of Van Zandt's incredible wordplay, and in the 22 years since it was recorded, he has traveled all over the world, written countless new songs, and shared his gifts with thousands of people. Ironically, he now prefers to be alone in the Tennessee hills, with his wife and child. The current mini-tour is in support of his most recent release on Sugar Hill Records, No Deeper Blue. The new album is pure Townes, loaded with angst, and rich in the tradition of the archetypal storyteller. An added surprise this go round is the inclusion of some of his more subtle but humorous tracks, with a little Dixieland backup thrown in the mix. It proves once again that Van Zandt is not only a master craftsman of songwriting, but also a stellar performer as well.
Van Zandt's last release, Roadsongs, was a tribute of sorts, as he did live covers of his personal favorite songs, including four Lightnin' Hopkins tracks, two Dylan tunes, a Rolling Stones song, and a Bruce Springsteen gem. There are a few classic country songs, most of which Van Zandt has been doing in concert off and on for years. It's nice to see an artist of his caliber pay homage to his peers.
Van Zandt is one of a rare breed, a traveling minstrel who paints verbal pictures that represent the best and the worst in us. He is a genius, wrestling with his personal demons, but only temporarily exorcising them through song. It is a never-ending battle, and we are the real winners.
Townes Van Zandt will be performing at Blind Willie's on Sunday, July 2. Showtime is 10 p.m.