Van Zandt come to praise him in song
By Chris Riemenschneider
friends to mourn me not," Kelly Willis sang with an extra dose of emotion
at the Cactus Cafe on January 23.
written by Townes Van Zandt long, long before he died, were indeed adhered
to by his friends throughout two tribute shows at the Cactus.
Billed as the "Houseboat
in Heaven" performances, the shows were actually fill-in dates left vacant.
The scheduled singer, you see, had passed on. But what he left behind was
a songwriting legacy well worth recognizing, and even celebrating, it seemed.
concerts were remarkably joyous occasions. Not that Van Zandt wasn't a
jovial guy, but the celebratory tone came as somewhat of a surprise. After
all, he had died too young (age 52) of a heart attack just three weeks
earlier on New Year's Day, and the countless songs he left behind couldn't
exactly be termed pick-me-ups. But just as Van Zandt showed in his music,
where there's tragedy and the blues, there's also beauty and spirit. Those
elements were largely on display both nights.
highlights of both shows came at the end, when Van Zandt's son J.T. came
out to perform. The younger Van Zandt, half the age his father was, caused
a silence in the audience both times he took the stage. For one,
he was a mirror image of his dad in looks and sound, but you also had to
worry about the guy breaking down on stage.
But J.T. quickly
showed he's got his father's disarming wit, and on Wednesday, he told a
laughable tale about bringing his father's ashes by that night. He couldn't
do it, he said, so he burned up some newspaper articles on Townes and brought
those ashes instead.
in between touching performances of "If I Needed You" and "Flying Shoes,"
J.T. did turn serious -- for a while.
when they die, they just die," he said. "I'm not denying he's dead -- he's
definitely dead. But Townes is still around."
with a smile, "He moved some stuff around my apartment the other night."
of emotions were displayed in short and long tales told by nearly everyone
who played. On Wednesday, Joe Ely talked about what an honor it was having
Van Zandt record one of his songs, "Indian Cowboy," even though Townes
had admitted, "I never really liked circus songs."
"I never did either."
Gilmore also remarked how honored he was by Van Zandt on Wednesday when
Townes had told him his version of "White Freight Liner" was the favorite
cover ever recorded of one of his songs. Gilmore jubilantly played that
tune, as well as a moving "Tecumseh Valley."
no question Van Zandt's songs were the stars glimmering that evening, it
was a treat to hear some of the players offer their own songs they associated
with Townes, such as Ely's. Earlier that night, Kimmie and Gabe Rhodes
performed "I'm Gonna Fly," the duet Van Zandt recorded with them on Kimmie's
"West Texas Heaven'' album last year. Also on Wednesday, George Hensley
played a song he wrote about Van Zandt, poignantly singing, ''He's
a troubadour/lost in his song/about the road we're traveling on.''
It was also
nice seeing a younger group of performers turn out to pay tribute. Beaver
Nelson nervously but bravely fumbled through "Mr. Gold and Mr. Mud''
on Wednesday, but the next night he nailed the rather difficult number
with the help of "Scrappy'' Jud Newcomb. Bruce Robison, Will T. Massey,
Troy Campbell and Darden Smith were also on hand, with Smith giving the
fitting description that, for singer-songwriters like himself, ''Opening
for Townes was like opening for Noah at a boat-builders convention.''
Van Zandt's old friends were on hand as well, handling their tributes to
him in different ways. On
a little crazy when Rich Minus played a shakey version of "No Lonesome
Tune'' and then fell over backward into the stage curtain. The friend who
ran to help him up then began cursing at the audience members for snickering,
which they weren't. It wouldn't have been a Townes show if something didn't
go wrong, though, to contrast all the perfection.
Thursday, his drinking pal Roxy Gordon
decided to just skip performing and instead told rambling stories about
the time he won $50 from Townes by flipping quarters or when he smuggled
the singer a bottle of vodka before he was about to play a gig billed as
the "Alcohol and Drug-Free Concert'' on an Indian reservation.
were plenty of perfect moments, from Mandy Mercier and Champ Hood's ''Fraulein''
on Wednesday to Michael Fracasso's duet with Nelson on "Loretta'' and Jimmy
LaFave's "Ain't Leavin' Your Love'' on Thursday.
and fans kept commenting that Townes probably still made it to the Cactus
both nights. If that's the case, let's hope he comes back as often as he
did when he was alive.