Townes Van Zandt Tribute – Cactus Cafe (Austin, TX)
When Townes Van Zandt died January 1, 1997, Butch Hancock and other friends fulfilled his booked dates to honor his memory. Hancock has turned this into a tradition by hosting a concert on Townes’ birthday every year. Held at the Cactus Cafe, this year’s Annual Townes Van Zandt Birthday Tribute & Celebration was both a loose party dedicated to remembering Townes and his music, and a wonderful showcase of the way Townes still lives through the artists he influenced.
This year’s guests ranged from established artists such as Joe Ely, Eric Taylor, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Alejandro Escovedo to up-and-comers such as Mark Ambrose and Nathan Hamilton. What they all had in common was a respect for the songs of Townes, and stories of how he had influenced their lives.
Butch Hancock opened the show alone, playing “Mr. Mudd & Mr.Gold” and “Two Girls”. His third song, “No Deal”, highlighted the loose nature of the night, when the back door near the stage opened and a man stuck his head in. Hancock proceeded to have a conversation with the man about his kids, all the while strumming his guitar. He then grinned, shrugged his shoulders and headed into the second verse of the song. Former Townes sidemen Donnie Silverman on flute and Mickey White on guitar then joined Hancock for “Pancho & Lefty”, “No Lonesome Tune”, “White Freight Liner”, and “Lungs”, which Hancock dedicated to the smokers on the patio. Hancock’s dusty voice was well-suited for the songs he chose, embodying the sense of hard-won wisdom that Townes’ later recordings captured.
Eric Taylor kept the crowd spellbound on “Nothing”, his voice seeming to share a terrible secret with the audience. He delivered the lines “Crush you down/Crush you down/Down into nothing” to absolute silence, giving them a sense of deep gravity as though he were the one being crushed. Many of the night’s participants shared the joy of Townes, but Taylor reminded his listeners of the dark side that inspired so many of his best songs.
Escovedo followed Taylor with a heartfelt version of “The Tower Song”. Accompanied by David Garza on guitar, he closed his eyes and leaned into the microphone to deliver Townes’ request for a lover to let down her defenses. His voice, raised when he sang “You built your tower strong and tall,” then faded to a whisper: “Can’t you see, it’s got to fall someday.”
As he has often done with Bob Dylan’s repertoire, Jimmy LaFave took “The Catfish Song” and “Snowin’ On Raton” and made them his own. On the former, LaFave’s keening voice expressed the sadness at the heart of the lyrics. Although Ray Wylie Hubbard had earlier played “Snowin’ On Raton”, LaFave announced it was his favorite Townes song, so he was going to do it anyway. His decision was rewarded as he performed a beautiful and unique take on the tune.
Returning to the stage, Hancock cracked a joke about “The Annual Ray Wylie Hubbard/Jimmy LaFave ‘Snowin’ On Raton’ Singoff,” proposing that every artist do the song to see all the different ways it would sound. Hancock introduced Joe Ely, who told his legendary tale of picking up a hitchhiking Townes in 1969. Ely played “Tecumseh Valley”, then started into a banging version of “Waiting Around To Die”. Where Townes’ version had a tone of weary resignation, Ely hammered out an exultant, almost angry rendition.
Hancock ended the night with a solo version of “Pancho & Lefty”, then said goodnight almost five hours after the show began. At no point during that five hours did the words or melodies grow weary; the strength of Townes’ songwriting shone through.