Townes Van Zandt’s Sixth Annual Wake – Old Quarter (Galveston, TX)
“Thank you for coming. Townes will be late, as usual,” Rex Bell, owner of the Old Quarter and MC for the evening, wryly noted after opening this year’s wake with a foot-thumping rendition of Van Zandt’s gospel-tinged “Two Hands”.
Marking the seventh anniversary of his death to the day, Van Zandt’s friends, fans and songwriters from lands as distant as Australia and New Zealand and near as Houston gathered to prove the late, great songwriter was, in their memories, like the title of his posthumous 1999 album — a far cry from dead. About 60 souls rotated through the club’s creaky front door on New Year’s Day to swap stories and take turns offering their readings of Van Zandt’s songs.
Joanna Gipson, who told of opening for Van Zandt in 1975 at the original Old Quarter in Houston and then crossing paths with him again twenty years later backstage at one of his final shows, was a highlight early on. “He gave me a big hug when I saw him in ’95, and then he proceeded to introduce me to others as his sister the rest of the night,” she said.
The kindred spirit the two shared was obvious in her performance: Gipson is a natural, thoughtful interpreter of Van Zandt’s songs. She gave “Snowin’ On Raton” the gentle, unsentimental touch it deserves, and though she fumbled chords at times to “Tower Song”, the song’s razor edge remained sharp and steady throughout.
Rumblings around the bar from veteran wake attendees bemoaned the probability of hearing a dozen versions each of Van Zandt’s two best-known songs, “Pancho And Lefty” and “If I Needed You”, but this year the twenty performers who signed up to play ventured deeper into the Texas poet’s catalog than in past years. In fact, those oft-covered songs were represented only twice each, with Gipson’s rendition of “If I Needed You” later in the evening drawing sighs and tears from the audience singing word-for-word with her.
Perhaps internet access and an expanded posthumous catalog now exposing Van Zandt’s entire oeuvre to a worldwide audience explain the welcome variety in the material the performers chose. Many said they felt a deep connection to Van Zandt’s songs and his precise, descriptive writing style, but the range of their selections illustrated the unique way each person absorbed and related to the words.
Five-time wake veteran Craig Malek offered urgent, uptempo twists on “For The Sake Of The Song” and “Quicksilver Daydreams Of Maria”, but it was his “Snake Mountain Blues” — frantic and manic, full of loathing and terror — that may well have shaken Van Zandt’s grave in Fort Worth’s Dido Cemetery with approval.
Galveston songwriter Lucky Boyd was equally impressive in his powerful yet self-deprecating set. He delivered Diane Craig’s tribute “The Ghost Of Townes Van Zandt”, mournful and haunting set against the Old Quarter’s wall collage of photos, posters and handbills bearing Van Zandt’s likeness.
“I figure if there’s one way to get Townes back, it would be to play one of his songs bad enough to get him out of the grave,” Boyd joked before launching into “Gone Too Long”. The opposite was true; if Van Zandt were to rise up during the song, it would have been to sling a strap around his neck and join in the barn-burning fast-blues slide jam.
Other pros such as Bell, who dug through the Delta with “Brand New Companion” and pleased the crowd with his namesake tune “Rex’s Blues”, proved they knew Van Zandt’s catalog as well as or better than their own. Even the amateurs of the bunch fared strongly, most notably Brad Brown on “High, Low And In Between”, “Turnstyled, Junkpiled”, and his stumble across the boozy landscape of “Blue Wind Blew”.
The undeniable standout, though, was hotshot Houston songwriter Hayes Carll, who pitched in by tending bar before and after his two-song set, showcasing his Van Zandt-like ability to stun a crowd with raw emotion. Carll turned his back with just the right contradictory mix of sympathy and apathy on “Greensboro Woman”, and his smoky, lustful “Loretta” was simply unparalleled. In his fistful-of-Exile stomp through the ode to a barroom girl who “dances like diamonds shine,” Carll summoned not only Van Zandt’s ghost to the stage, but the spirits of Gram Parsons and Keith Richards as well.
The night’s only disappointment was a no-show from Van Zandt’s eldest son, who had planned to attend but at the last minute drifted off to one of his father’s favorite stomping grounds. “J.T. Van Zandt was supposed to be here,” Bell said, “but he’s about as crazy as his father and is out in Colorado right now, riding the ranges.”
Yet the stories of nights in jail shared with Van Zandt after lawless escapades, days drinking whiskey together and weeks that he spent on different couches more than filled any void left by his son’s absence, even giving the feeling that Townes himself were somewhere in the room, just around the corner. And though he will never again set foot in the Old Quarter, the growing number of faithful proved on this night that while Van Zandt is too long gone, they will dedicate themselves to making sure his tales, real and imaginary, do not fade away into that cloud of dust Pancho bit down south.