TOWNES VAN ZANDT – Down Home & Abroad (Retroworld FLOATD6377)

Down Home & AbroadIt’s hard to believe that Townes Van Zandt has been gone for more than 20 years, leaving behind some fine songs and memories of some uneven performances, in which his problems with addiction and bipolar disorder were no doubt played their part. The live double album Down Home & Abroad features performances from two pretty good nights. Disc 1 was recorded at The Down Home, Johnson City, Tennessee in 1985, and Disc 2 at The Tavastia in Helsinki, Finland in 1993. Inevitably, some of the songs occur on both CDs, but if, like me, you can never hear too much of ‘Pancho And Lefty’ or the somewhat-traditional-sounding ‘Dollar Bill’, you’ll probably enjoy comparing these two readings. (The other songs that are included in both sets are ‘If I Needed You’ and ‘Don’t You Take It Too Bad’, both fine songs.)

Here’s the listing for both CDs: while I’ve chosen not to comment on all the songs in this review, that doesn’t mean they’re less than interesting. I’m not sure Van Zandt knew how to write a bad song.

Disc 1 –Tennessee 1985. With musical support from Mickey White (guitar) and Donny Silverman (flute and sax). This set includes a couple of Van Zandt’s early excursions into talking blues, with a biting humour that is less upfront in his later material.

  1. ‘Intro’ Just a spoken introduction.
  2. ‘Dollar Bill Blues’
  3. ‘Pancho And Lefty’ is described as ‘a medley of my hit’, which I suppose is commercially all too true. Actually, while that’s an old joke that I’ve actually used myself, it’s typical of the wry asides that Townes throws in between songs, and they certainly don’t detract from the interest of the performances.
  4. ‘Buckskin Stallion Blues’
  5. ‘No Place To Fall’
  6. ‘Talking Thunderbird Blues’
  7. ‘Mr Gold And Mr Mud’ – Van Zandt was sometimes mentioned as both influenced by and an influence on Dylan: this one might remind you, lyrically, of ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ – well, it did me…
  8. ‘If I Needed You’
  9. ‘Snowing On Raton’ is one of many songs in this collection I hadn’t come across before. It’s probably my current favourite.
  10. ‘To Live Is To Fly’
  11. ‘Don’t You Take It Too Bad’
  12. ‘Snake Mountain Blues’
  13. ‘Rake’
  14. ‘Fraternity Blues’
  15. ‘Colorado Girl’/’Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ merges Van Zandt’s own song with a Dylan song from Highway 61 Revisited. Unexpected, but I rather like it.

Disc 2 –Finland 1993. The spoken introductions to the songs tend to be a bit rambling compared to the earlier set, and the set as a whole is a little less polished, and the overall tone darker.

  1. ‘Dollar Bill Blues’
  2. ‘Pancho And Lefty’
  3. ‘Brand New Companion’
  4. ‘Two Girls’
  5. ‘Lungs’
  6. ‘Rex’s Blues’
  7. ‘Nothin”
  8. ‘The Ribbons of Love’
  9. ‘Kathleen’
  10. ‘The Cuckoo’ is closely related to ‘The Coo Coo Bird’ as sung by Clarence ‘Tom’ Ashley, though Van Zandt includes verses I haven’t heard from recordings of Ashley. There are better TVZ performances available of the same song, but it’s still a powerful reading.
  11. ‘Brother Flower’ is a Van Zandt original: unfortunately (it’s really rather a pretty song), he apparently hadn’t sung it for a while, and was unable to get past the first verse: he apologized and went into the well-known track that follows (and which also features on the first CD).
  12. ‘If I Needed You’
  13. ‘Pinball Machine (1st Verse)’ is just an unaccompanied fragment of a very sad song credited by Van Zandt to Patrick Sky. However, on Sky’s Photographs the song is (correctly, I think) credited to Lonnie Irving.
  14. ‘Tecumseh Valley’
  15. ‘Flyin’ Shoes’
  16. ‘Don’t You Take It Too Bad’

The music of Townes Van Zandt belongs, I guess, in that broad area of Americana somewhere between folk and country: if you haven’t heard him before, you may want to draw comparisons with Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Joe Ely, Guy Clark and Steve Earle, as well as more mainstream country artists like Hank Williams, or Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who had a number one country hit with their duet version of ‘Pancho And Lefty’. But he had a voice and poetic sensibility all his own, drawing on influences ranging from Shakespeare to the blues, and some of the best songs in the rather broad singer/songwriter idiom are his. If you aren’t familiar with his studio work, this is a good introduction to his songs: if you know and love his work already but don’t have these sets, you’ll certainly want to add this to your collection.

David Harley

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Artist’s website: townesvanzandt.com/

It has to be ‘Pancho And Lefty’ – live on TV: