A Gentle Evening with Townes Van Zandt

Townes Van Zandt

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A Gentle Evening with Townes Van Zandt Review

by Michael Berick

On November 26, 1969, Poppy Records held a showcase at New York City's Carnegie Hall. The diverse bill included comedian Dick Gregory, Philadelphia psych rockers Mandrake Memorial, and a young Texas singer/songwriter named Townes Van Zandt. For years, the tape of this show was lost as the little Poppy label was snapped up by larger companies (United Artists and Capitol). Well worth the rediscovery, this concert reveals the 25-year-old Van Zandt singing with a gentle voice -- before it got battered by his hard living. His youthful vocals serve to enhance the poetic lyricism in bittersweet love songs like "Like a Summer's Thursday" and "Second Lover's Song." Accompanying himself just on acoustic guitar, Van Zandt strips his tunes down to their essential elements, and these renditions feel more timeless than their studio versions. "Tecumseh Valley," one of his finest songs, is done in a simple yet sublime rendition. His spare approach also helps to make his sole cover (Pete LaFarge's "The Ballad of Ira Hayes") feel more personal and, consequently, more powerful than the more highly produced version that Johnny Cash had a hit with in 1964. Most of the songs here appeared either on earlier or later Van Zandt albums; only his opening number, the wickedly biting "Talking KKK Blues," hasn't appeared on a Van Zandt record before now. This disc doesn't surpass his greatest live album -- the magnificent Live at the Old Quarter -- but it does stand as a terrific document, capturing a young man whose talents are fully evident despite his relative inexperience. He had only been a professional musician for some three years when he did this show. Van Zandt's subsequent career proved to be highly influential, even though his self-destructive behavior helped to end his life at the age of 52. This lovely disc offers early evidence of what made Van Zandt such a special musician.

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