Album review: TOWNES VAN ZANDT – The Late Great Townes Van Zandt

TOWNES VAN ZANDT – The Late Great Townes Van Zandt

Charly [Release date 30.10.15]

The sense of irony in Townes Van Zandt’s 1972 album title ‘The Late Great Townes Van Zandt’ hasn’t lessoned with the passing of the years.

If it was an attempt by long time friend, manager and collaborator Kevin Eggers to draw attention to his charge at the time, then the title sadly became all too prophetic too soon.

Billboard magazine described the troubled troubadour as “largely-obscure-if-legendary,” while Eggers thought Van Zandt’s music vacillated between: “artistic triumphs and commercial failures.”

Over 43 years since its recording, the re-mastered edition of ‘The Late Great Townes Van Zandt’  - complete with 4 bonus tracks – still probably won’t sell huge amounts of records, but should find its niche given the current fascination for shoe gazing singer songwriters and the recent upswing in Americana.

Eggers recognised the doomed story teller’s art even when the rest of the world didn’t. His liner notes give you an insight into a poet whose weighty lyrics were never detached from a sense of struggle. It was a cycle that was only broken when his songs achieved success in the hands of others such as Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

Reflecting on his own songs, Townes said: “It’s like looking at a particular pebble and blocking out everything else that comes along.”

Mixing autobiographical songs of real depth with shifting moods and feelings, Townes is the classic guitar playing wordsmith who despite broaching familiar universalities in empathetic songs remained out of the step with the times.

He’s a poet, a story teller and a guitarist who never wastes a note. As Kevin Eggers liner notes confirm, Townes spent some creative time in Greenwich Village , but: “ he lived with a drifters freedom,” as evidenced by the lyrics of the opening ‘No Lonesome Road’: “Ah babe, I cannot believe I stayed so long away, But a man must look around.”

He imbues the beautiful crafted ‘Sad Cinderella’ with a heartfelt sadness, mirrored by the gentlest of piano lines, while ‘German Mustard’ – a co-write with Rocky Hill – is a loose, sleazy blues with nuanced slide guitar playing and a telling lyric: “My baby say you lonesome, I say baby you don’t know what it means.”

He brings real presence and emotion to bear on both the original string arrangement and band bonus track of ‘Snow Don’t Fall’ , while his heartfelt phrasing rescues the fiddle-led love song ‘Fraulein’, which was apparently his dad’s favourite song?

‘Pancho & Lefty’ is perhaps his best known effort. It’s given a stripped down version on the bonus track while the original remains a great example of his story telling art, voiced over a rising string arrangement and an opening verse that sounds too close to his own situation for comfort: “Living on the road my friend, Was gonna keep you free and clean, Now you wear your skin like iron, Your breath’s as hard as kerosene.”

The spacious ‘If I Needed You’ is equally good. The bonus track features an earlier mix, while the original version resonates as an unreconstructed love song voiced over a distant pedal steel and simple rhythm that draws you in.

The slow building 7 verse strong ‘The Silver Ships Of Andilar’, benefits from another rising string arrangement and fleeting choral accompaniment, while ‘Houseboat In Heaven’ doesn’t quite live up to its splendid title, before a drowning sound at the of the song seems to suggest he’s had enough.

‘The Late Great Townes Van Zandt’ is a welcome return to the catalogue for a singer songwriter who had the priceless ability to convey so much through little. His lyrical substance, emotive phrasing and understated guitar playing give this album its deserved longevity.  ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 19:00

David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 2 August 2020.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 4 August 2020.

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