Townes Van Zandt

Live at McCabe's

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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann

A flood of live albums have attended the years just before Townes Van Zandt's death in 1997 and the years immediately after; this is another one. Its status as a collector's item is attested by the sleeve notation that it is a limited edition, with only 2,000 copies printed. The intended audience, then, is Van Zandt fans, who will welcome it as they would any recorded concert performance by the dour singer/songwriter. Those fans will know that, like such apparently depressive artists as Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman, Van Zandt was actually hilarious in concert. His shows featured his songs of derelicts and degradation, of course, but his manner, as here, was self-deprecating about the material. At times during this performance, recorded at the small Los Angeles club McCabe's on February 10, 1995, he seems amazed -- or perhaps the right word is appalled -- at what is coming out of his own mouth in the songs' lyrics. At least, he says, as he makes his way through Lightnin' Hopkins' "Short Haired Woman Blues" (which is about a woman whose hair is full of rats), he didn't write that one himself, although that doesn't explain why he's singing it. And so it goes; when he later invites Dobro player Kelly Joe Phelps up on-stage to accompany him, he says that, if he were Phelps, he wouldn't accept the invitation. But this is all part of Van Zandt's shambling charm, and it helps alleviate the depression of well-written songs like "Marie," which is narrated in the voice of a homeless man who details his desperate straits and the death of his girlfriend (as does the drunk joke he repeats from his Live at the Old Quarter album). The show has an off the cuff quality, as when Van Zandt and Phelps essay a cover of "Wabash Cannonball," which starts turning into something else as Van Zandt begins improvising bizarre new lyrics. But that's the kind of thing that endeared him to his fans, and 2,000 of them (if not more) will be happy to add this disc to their collections.

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