Townes Van Zandt was born into a prominent Texas family and had a high IQ, so his family groomed him to become a lawyer or senator. He suffered from manic depression, and was given insulin shock therapy, which erased much of his long-term memory.
Van Zandt became a singer-songwriter, rejecting normal life to live in cabins and cheap motel rooms. He released six albums between 1968 and 1972, which established him as a renowned songwriter. Van Zandt’s classified as Texas folk, playing simple and elegant songs with a country twang.
The label he was signed to, Poppy Records, failed in 1973, curtailing his recording career. Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas was Van Zandt’s first live album. It was recorded in 1973, but wasn’t released until 1977.
The Old Quarter was a small brick club on the seedy side of Houston, Texas. It was 18 feet by 38 feet, and could only hold around 100 people. Despite its small size, it was loved by performers for the outspoken and knowledgeable regulars. Live at the Old Quarter was recorded on a hot and humid July evening. Van Zandt was able to captivate the audience with just his guitar, voice, and some endearingly bad jokes.
There’s background noise, like the clunks of beer mugs, but the record gives the impression of an enraptured audience hanging on every word from Van Zandt’s songs despite the cramped, humid conditions.
Why Live at the Old Quarter is Townes Van Zandt’s Best Album
Townes Van Zandt was a supremely talented songwriter, but was indifferent to the recording process. His studio albums were shaped by their producers; sometimes they had inappropriate studio gloss, like his 1968 debut For The Sake of the Song, and sometimes they were low key and effective, like 1969’s Townes Van Zandt.
Given the disparity of his albums, Live at the Old Quarter is a great one-stop shopping solution for Van Zandt that’s more unified than a greatest hits compilation could hope to be. It’s also released at the end of Van Zandt’s most fertile period of writing; it covers the six albums he recorded between 1968 and 1972, while the songs ‘Loretta’ and ‘No Place To Fall’ would eventually turn up on 1978’s Flyin’ Shoes, his next studio record.
Van Zandt’s music is all about emotional connection, and it’s especially effective in this live setting, just accompanied by his own acoustic guitar, and accompanied by his humble banter and endearing jokes.
Some of Van Zandt’s studio albums are also excellent. The Gothic strings of 1969’s Our Mother The Mountain create a memorable atmosphere, and the more stripped down 1969’s Townes Van Zandt is also excellent. It’s worth picking up the box set Texas Troubadour, which collects his first seven albums and outtakes.
Live at the Old Quarter is almost like a greatest hits, featuring many of Van Zandt’s best loved songs.
Pancho and Lefty
Van Zandt opens the set with his best known song, also covered by Emmylou Harris and a number one country hit for the pairing of Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. It’s the story of two bandits, and was later voted the #17 Western song of all time.
Talking Thunderbird Blues
On his studio albums, Van Zandt’s melancholy ballads are almost always his best songs, and his forays into humour are distracting. On a ninety minute live album, the diversions are welcome, and this talking blues song is hilarious.
My favourite Van Zandt song is this delicate piece, a rumination on a disintegrating relationship with insightful lines like “The end is coming soon, it’s plain/A warm bed just ain’t worth the pain.”
Do the Experts Agree?
Live at the Old Quarter was greeted enthusiastically by critics. When it arrived, Van Zandt hadn’t released an album for five years, and it avoided the over-production of some of his studio albums.
On the website Rate Your Music, Live at the Old Quarter is rated higher than any of Van Zandt’s studio albums. It’s not on the charts as it’s a live album, but it has an impressive average rating of 4.16/5.
On the website Acclaimed Music, Live at the Old Quarter is ranked as Van Zandt’s best album, and the 2,124th best album of all time.
Live at the Old Quarter isn’t included in the original edition of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Neither is any other Townes Van Zandt album, surprisingly given that he was a respected and acclaimed songwriter.