“A Night On The Townes” With Butch Hancock & Friends – Cactus Cafe (Austin, TX)
Sending the crowd home after more than three hours of intoxicating music, Butch Hancock advised, “As Townes would say, ‘When you leave out of here, drive real fast, and maybe they won’t catch me.'” The gathering of friends, fans and family at Van Zandt’s favorite Austin club had been billed as “A Night On The Townes,” and it was the sort of party the troubadour would have enjoyed. He certainly would have appreciated its ironies: how the place was packed tighter than the Cactus had ever been — certainly more crowded than it had ever been for Townes — and how the bar was flowing freely in birthday tribute to a man who basically drank himself to death.
For host Hancock, the program represented both “an honor and a chore,” the challenge of stepping into another songwriter’s shoes for an entire evening, to see the world through Van Zandt’s eyes. For Hancock’s wordplay is typically as luminous and life-affirming as Townes’ stripped-down imagery is dark and deathly. Butch’s songs can be heard as a mystical embrace of the interconnectedness of experience — the universe in an endless “West Texas Waltz” — where so many of Van Zandt’s amounted to an extended suicide note.
Yet Hancock’s interpretive alchemy somehow turned Townes songs into Butch songs (much as Van Zandt had been able to transform Stones and Springsteen songs into Townes songs). Following a brief opening set by Pat Mears, one of Van Zandt’s South Austin running buddies, Hancock launched directly into “Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold”, the most ambitiously allegorical of Van Zandt’s narratives, and soon proceeded into “Marie”, sung from the perspective of a homeless man on the death of his pregnant wife.
“He took a walk through a pretty dark valley,” Hancock had earlier explained. “And he must have had a pretty bright light inside him.” If life and love are transitory, flickering sparks amid the existential emptiness of Van Zandt’s music, the songs themselves endure, and affirm. The birthday bash was filled with examples of the warmth Van Zandt engendered, the bonds forged through his music. Toward the end of the first set, Hancock was joined by guitarist Mickey White and flutist Donnie Silverman, longtime accompanists of Van Zandt, on “To Live Is To Fly”, and it seemed impossible to believe that Townes wasn’t there as well. Standing toward the back of the packed club, Jimmie Dale Gilmore swore he heard some “ghost harmonica” coming from somewhere.
The second set opened with “You Are Not Needed Now” before Hancock ceded the stage to J.T. Van Zandt, who had been helping behind the bar. A younger facsimile of his gaunt daddy, though with a voice thinner and more fragile, he said, “It’s nice to see so much appreciation for my father’s music. I just wish I knew some happier songs.”
He then proceeded into “Flying Shoes” and “The Highway Kind” before calling for Gilmore to join him onstage. With Joe Ely watching from the audience, a Flatlanders reunion was inevitable, along with the story of how Van Zandt’s music had initially brought the three Lubbockites together, after Ely had picked up the hitchhiking Townes and was handed a copy of Van Zandt’s Our Mother The Mountain album in appreciation.
By the time the trio’s rendition of “Pancho & Lefty” brought the program to a close, Hancock was already pondering next year’s salute. In reference to an extended engagement he played at the Cactus a decade ago, billed “No 2 Alike,” he wanted to extend the birthday bash over more than one night and call it “No Townes Alike.”