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Barely five years into his recording career in 1973, Townes Van Zandt classics like "Pancho and Lefty," "Rex's Blues" and "Lungs" helped carve out the man's folk hero status among luminaries like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Steve Earle. Live at the Old Quarter, a set recorded in 1973 and first released in 1977, helped seal his critical reputation -- while perhaps simultaneously driving yet another nail into the coffin of Van Zandt's cult status.

CD: Townes van zandt, live at the old quarterNo one can doubt, even in retrospective, the sheer scope of heartfelt invention present in all these songs. "Pancho And Lefty" unfolds like an intimate blessing. Many cheers greeted the song in subsequent live outings. But a desert quiet permeates the Old Quarter, as though the song was a creation only newly revealed. The song tells the spare tale of two separate drifters, one an outlaw the other a musician in a swift and haunting deconstruction of both the outlaw rider and lone musician myth.

"Pancho and Lefty" helped link Van Zant, somewhat unfortunately, with the renegade outlaw country scene. OK, a couple of his other songs didn't help, either. Those who know him only by this signature tune and expect him to be a long lost Hank Williams relative, will be surprised by the delicacy of such great songs as "Rex's Blues" and the Arlo Guthrie-esque humor of "Fraternity Blues."

Like "Pancho and Lefty," the gigantic myth of the Old Quarter occupies small real space, 18 by 38 feet to be exact. On this night, one hundred people packed the room. The recording sounds intimate without trying to replicate intimacy. I would still like to hear Live at the Old Quarter on a beat up and worn cassette, preferably driving down the road at night in a pick-up headin' nowhere. I'd love to hear "Lungs" and "No Place To Fall" with just a touch of hiss and crackle like falling beer bottles. A CD lacks a bit of that pinched-in quality when it comes to sound. Very little music can bear up under such intimacy, but I suspect, nay, I know Van Zandt's can.

For all their delicacy the songs possess many tough edges. Van Zandt deserves the problematic label of "storyteller." His songs narrate without resolving into familiar structures -- except for their random, though plentiful rhyme. His voice at the beginning set, never a strong instrument to begin with, quavers tentatively in spots throughout the first CD. While he would demonstrate consistent confidence in the many subsequent live recordings of his career, those recordings would seldom match the warmth and intimacy Live at the Old Quarter possesses in such abundance.

Michael Pacholski

Michael Pacholski's poem, "Winter Scene," was published in the February 2002 issue of Midwest Review.

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