Tribute To Townes Van Zandt – Tivoli (Utrecht, Netherlands)
Invariably, when a loved one passes away, there are loose ends to tie up. Words are left unspoken, issues are unresolved, and the hands of time can’t be turned back to accommodate an easy farewell.
Townes Van Zandt left plenty of unfinished business in his wake after his death at age 52 on New Year’s Day 1997. The rambling soul’s legacy has been kept alive by countless posthumous releases of his work, some arguably better or more sincere than others. Van Zandt’s musical influence has spread all over the globe, and on a Sunday night in the provincial Dutch town of Utrecht, a packed house has gathered to celebrate the life and times of this Texas troubadour.
They’ve brought their memories with them. Heartfelt, often ribald tales and poignant stories long told make the rounds, many of them surely embellished with each passing from person to person: Townes taking hours of his time to talk to fans at the bar, stealing Gideon Bibles from chintzy motel rooms, catching snakes with Steve Earle to sell to Vanderbilt University. Everybody, it seems, has their own special recollections, including the first-rate lineup of musicians on the bill.
Kicking things off was Ad van Meurs’ extended project the Watchman & the Very Girls. Incorporating fine female harmonies juxtaposed with Meurs’ own Dutch-tinged timbre, the group offered a number of lesser-known Van Zandt songs (“Be Here To Love Me”, “At My Window”), along with a smattering of appropriate selections (Econoline’s “Bryan, Texas”, written about Townes, and Hank Williams’ “I Heard That Lonesome Whistle”) and original compositions (“Graceland”, “Take My Blues Away”). German guitarist Stephan Jankowski’s jazz-inflected lines spun over and around each vocal phrasing gracefully.
With self-deprecating humor and a clear, soaring voice, British songwriter Michael Weston King, former leader of the Good Sons, had the audience on his side from his first song, a sparse reading of the Carter Family’s “I Can’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore”. King’s songs dedicated to Hank Williams and Tim Hardin (“Higher Ground” and “Tim Hardin ’65”, respectively), along with his artful coupling of his own “Lay Me Down” with Van Zandt’s “Waitin’ Round To Die”, made for a rewarding set and the evening’s first real high point.
J.T. Van Zandt has no illusions about the music business. Speaking in the hallway after his set, Townes’ son admits he’s perfectly content with his life as a “cabinet-maker and part-time fisherman”, and that he has no desire to record an album at this point. With the same dusty-sweet (albeit more limited) voice and a striking physical resemblance to his father, J.T. played a set consisting mostly of Townes material (highlighted by one of Guy Clark’s personal favorites, “Colorado Girl”), though he added the tragic Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” and his own moving original “Take Me While I’m Strong”.
A somewhat crabby Guy Clark quietly took to the stage accompanied by longtime cohort Verlon Thompson. Clark’s opening rendition of Steve Earle’s “Fort Worth Blues” set the tone for what was to come: a softly smoldering set of highlight upon highlight, as Clark interspersed his own classics (“Cold Dog Soup”, “L.A. Freeway”, “Homegrown Tomatoes”, “Old Friends”, and “Dublin Blues” among them) with Van Zandt’s “Turnstiled, Junkpiled” (“I haven’t played this one in years,” he noted) and “To Live Is To Fly”.
Verlon Thompson’s own short set included “Lucky Dog” (complete with a short Johnny Cash impression and a tale of how the Man in Black had recorded the song but never released it because of problems with his label) and covers of Townes’ “Marie” and “Rex’s Blues” — and, surprisingly, turned out to be the high point of the whole evening.
It was J.T., though, who best summed up how everyone felt on this night in the Netherlands, and why they were here. “My main goal,” he said, “is to remain loyal and true to Townes and his music.”