Townes Van Zandt rightfully enjoys near-sainthood status as a legendary songwriter. For clear, concise songs that address every facet of the human condition, you can’t do much better than Van Zandt’s plainspoken poetry. Unfortunately, much of the public’s appreciation of Van Zandt has come after his death (of a heart attack in 1997 at the age of 52), with both his peers and his songwriting progeny singing his praises (some, like Guy Clark, even including at least one Van Zandt song on each of their albums).
Van Zandt’s recorded legacy is already strong, even if it’s flickered in and out of print with the fates of whatever labels held the rights to respective albums. With the resurrection of Van Zandt’s old label home, Tomato Records, his studio recordings are finally coming back into the light. Also, through the efforts of labels like Duotone, little-known live recordings are also beginning to see official release.
Live recordings make up a small (about a half dozen discs, Gentle Evening included) but important portion of Van Zandt’s catalog. One, Live at the Old Quarter, is a certifiable classic. His death has made these posthumous snapshots even more important, as Van Zandt’s life seemed to cover the spectrum of human experience, and his performances were often a good gauge of where his life stood at a given time. These archive releases have varied in quality, but with few exceptions, they’ve performed the service of illuminating phases of Van Zandt’s career, from the early promise to the songwriter in his prime to the sadness of his last days.
A Gentle Evening with Townes Van Zandt captures the young Van Zandt in the improbable setting of Carnegie Hall, on 26 November 26 1969. The Townes Van Zandt in this recording is only 25, with only a few years of professional recording and two albums under his belt, a fact obscured by the startling strength of the songwriting on display. Part of a three-act Poppy Records showcase (alongside comedian Dick Gregory and lost-to-the-mists-of-time rockers Mandrake Memorial), Van Zandt probably felt more like a fish out of water than he normally would have in such an environment.
The classy confines of Carnegie Hall are indeed a strange setting for an already road-worn performer like Van Zandt, and he probably doesn’t help himself when he introduces his opening song, “Talking KKK Blues” by saying that he’d intended to open with “Talkin’ Thunderbird Blues”, but decided that “there’s probably more bigots than winos in the audience.” The song, for all its previously unreleased status, is a curious artifact. It’s scathing and unflinching, but delivered with so much of Van Zandt’s trademark dry humor that it falls a little flat. His “talking blues” songs were never the highlights of his canon, and there’s no telling what the audience made of the song, but Van Zandt recovers quickly by easing into a mini-set of strong material.
Probably the disc’s greatest strength is the light it shines on more obscure Van Zandt tracks. Songs like “Pancho and Lefty”, “If I Needed You”, and “Waitin’ Around to Die” are rightfully revered, but lesser known tracks like “Rake”, “Like a Summer’s Thursday”, and “Second Lover’s Song” make strong arguments for their own re-evaluation as major Van Zandt compositions. Van Zandt delivers brilliant readings of these songs, as he does with better known songs like “Lungs” and “Tecumseh Valley”. Accompanied by only his acoustic guitar, Van Zandt does indeed give gentle performances, and many of these starkly presented renditions eclipse their studio counterparts. At this early stage in Van Zandt’s career, his studio albums hadn’t become the slickly polished country that would later characterize his work, but some of his songs did suffer in the studio from losing their plainspoken roots.
Although A Gentle Evening with Townes Van Zandt offers only nine songs (and one slightly awkward joke about a nun), the disc captures Van Zandt in a mode that seems strange in retrospect. His songs, and his persona, were so infused with an old soul that it’s difficult to imagine him as a young man full of spit, vinegar, and insecurity. Yet here he is—energetic, clear of voice, and obviously possessed of fully developed talent. At the end of the disc, when Van Zandt announces he only has one more song (a bare-bones rendition of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”), it’s hard to tell if the crowd’s applause is from relief or from sincere appreciation of what they’ve heard. From the sound of this short but brilliant performance, it’s hard to believe that anyone could have left Carnegie Hall unsatisfied.