Townes Van Zandt is better regarded as a songwriter than as a performer, and not without reason -- he was a peerless lyricist with a singular ability to capture the landscape of the heart and soul in words, but while he was a fine singer he wasn't exceptional, and the ravages of alcohol, tobacco and drugs took a fearsome toll on his voice in his last years. But Van Zandt could work magic in front of an audience under the right circumstances, and while a wealth of live recordings of Van Zandt have emerged since his passing on the first day of 1997, Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas ranks with the very best of his concert albums. Live at the Old Quarter is simple and spare, capturing Van Zandt in a 1973 solo performance at a Houston saloon with just his acoustic guitar for company, and the engineering ably captures the ambience of the room, with the audience clearly caught up in the spell of these songs. The set features 26 songs, all originals except for covers of "Cocaine Blues," "Nine Pound Hammer," and "Who Do You Love," and Van Zandt brigs these tunes to life with an easy grace that's a striking complement to the emotional gravity of his lyrics, though he also gives his lighter side an airing here, occasionally cracking jokes and offering a pair of funny talking blues numbers, "Talking Thunderbird Blues" and "Fraternity Blues." If the renditions of "Pancho & Lefty," "If I Needed You," "Rex's Blues," "For the Sake of the Song," and "Tecumseh Valley" aren't quite definitive, they're beautiful and affecting, and thanks to the sharp performances, on-point vocals, and superb set list, this is a superior document of Townes Van Zandt on-stage, and is a fine introduction to his body of work.
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