TOWNES VAN ZANDT Live At The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas (Fat Possum)

I feel I should enjoy this album a whole bunch more than I do. Of course, Townes Van Zandt’s reputation as a hard-living singer songwriter, lionised by the likes of Steve Earle, precedes him, suggesting that this 1973 set should be awesome. It contains 26 songs recorded at the tiny titular venue, over 100 people crammed into a room sized to house 60, the open door barely denting the July Houston heat but causing the set to be punctuated by the steady swoosh of passing buses. Surely this should be the concentrated essence of Townes Van Zandt: his songs, his voice, his acoustical (sic) guitar and his audience.

Yet I find it strangely so-so. There are some great songs here, of course. “Pancho & Lefty” and “Kathleen”, later covered by Emmylou Harris and Tindersticks respectively, ensure that, and with his mordantly pessimistic outlook Van Zandt could almost pass for a countrified Mark Eitzel. He’s got a gift for an arresting simile, such as “To Live Is To Fly”’s “Days up and down they come/Like rain on a conga drum”, and a surprising talent for comedy, as the occasional between-song jokes and the talking blues of “Fraternity Blues” and “Talking Thunderbird Blues” attest. “She Came And She Touched Me” and “Why She’s Acting This Way” are pleasantly reminiscent of “Another Side Of Bob Dylan”, around when the protest gave way to elliptical wordplay. But perhaps Townes is at his best when he’s at his bleakest: “Waiting ‘Round To Die”, described as “the first serious song I ever wrote”, might be the finest moment here, a song that starts out in a bad way and gets progressively worse.  For all that, though, I feel that I can’t really locate the genius I’ve read about here, wrongheaded though that notion may seem.  This album isn’t compelling to me, and I don’t know why.

Fat Possum’s limited edition 180 gram vinyl reissue is a bit of a shoulder-shrugger sonically. It’s better than their bafflingly bad hatchet job on Al Green’s back catalogue, but still sounds rather vague and fuzzy, although perhaps that’s appropriate for the occasion.