J. T. Van Zandt – Black Sheep Inn (Wakefield, Quebec)
Between his woodworking business in Austin and his fondness for flyfishing, J.T. Van Zandt, the oldest of Townes’ three children, doesn’t tour much. That’s a shame, because his pleasant stage persona, evident sincerity and inborn musicality are a dandy combination.
That Van Zandt played the Black Sheep Inn north of Ottawa at all, in fact, was pure luck. He was already booked into the Fred Eaglesmith annual charity picnic in southern Ontario later in the week (he and Eaglesmith are good buddies) and was enticed a little further north not just by the Black Sheep’s reputation as a superb listening room, but by the region’s plentiful lakes and rivers.
“What do y’all fish up here?” Van Zandt asked the small but welcoming audience part-way through his two-hour show. “Small-mouth bass? Walleye? I’ve brought my fishing gear.”
“Pickerel…muskie,” shouted a couple of voices from the crowd, and Van Zandt’s dark eyes, so eerily reminiscent of his late father’s, lit up. Not surprisingly, the humorous “Fishing Dog’s Lament”, a J.T. original, and the cautionary “Shrimp Song”, an old favorite his dad used to cover, were on Van Zandt’s set list. Others included Townes classics “Rex’s Blues” and “Marie”, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ How Long”, and the traditional “Texas River Song”.
Van Zandt, at 35, is still learning his craft. Accompanied by Adam Ahrens, an unassuming but adroit fingerpicker and slide guitarist who played three sparkling Hawaiian guitar solo numbers in the second set, Van Zandt occasionally let his Black Sheep show lag, seeming to suddenly disengage from his material. His fingerpicking, as he admitted after the gig, still needs work. And a little more stage patter, something for which Van Zandt’s easygoing manner is especially suited, in the second half of the show would have helped keep his connection with the crowd.
That said, when Van Zandt is hitting on all cylinders, the results are wonderful. Songs such as his own country-inflected “Coming Down” (the evening’s opener) and Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” become gripping studies in wistfulness and loss when Van Zandt sings them. “I grew up on sad music,” he explained. “When we were happy, there was no need to have music — we just rode it out. I don’t even know any happy songs.”
His covers of Townes’ “Tecumseh Valley”, in which poor Caroline seemed to materialize in front of us, and Foley’s “Our Little Town”, during which Van Zandt’s voice briefly seized up with memories of his dad’s old pal Blaze, proved his point.
And is he like his father onstage? Well, when he sang Townes’ “Colorado Girl”, he could have been his dad — not through slavish imitation, but because timbre and emotional response spring partly from our genes.
Mostly, though, he’s J.T., a guy who plays music occasionally and, seeing where it led his father, hesitates about heading out on the road as a career. Van Zandt’s Black Sheep performance was punctuated with shy smiles and downcast eyes at his audience’s enthusiasm; but he also obviously enjoyed the response, and he may yet push that part-time pursuit a little further into full-time territory.