Townes Van Zandt – Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas

One of the worst things that can happen at a show is for the songs on the stage to reproduce the songs from the studio, yet live records fall into this trap more often than not. Crowd noise is cleaned up and artificially returned between songs. Rather than reproducing the best show, tracks are culled from multiple shows. Part of what makes live music great though is the imperfection and the unplanned, the human fallibility, the very human element itself. Instead, too many live records are more akin to a sitcom with a laugh track rather than a live audience. If there is any place in music that just screams for authenticity, it is the live show and, by extension, the live record.

The first track on Live at the Old Quarter is an announcement, not just of Townes Van Zandt’s set, but also the location of the restrooms, pool tables and cigarette machine. Before Van Zandt goes into his opener, “Pancho and Lefty,” he apologizes for the air conditioning being off. “It gets really hot; I don’t know what we’re gonna do.” Why does this matter? Because a live record should feel live. This sets the ugly, comfortable scene of sitting in a hot, muggy, smoky bar…and being rivetted by the unadulterated and imperfect beauty of a great songwriter and his songs and his banter and jokes. There is the sense of getting to know the real Townes Van Zandt across thousands of miles and nearly five decades as if he is sitting right there rather than the turntable.

The reason that Live at the Old Quarter is such a great live record, aside from being just a collection of great songs, is its purity. The record is the show almost entirely intact. According to the liner notes, only a few instances of bar glasses breaking were edited out and, though I would never know they were removed, I miss even that. But in the end, Live at the Old Quarter is perhaps the most human experience I’ve ever had without having anyone around. Through it, Townes Van Zandt is more than a songwriter. He’s a friend.

Released: 1977

About bobvinyl

bobvinyl, writer and co-editor of No Song is an Island, founded its predecessor, Rock and Roll and Meandering Nonsense (whose archives are found here), in 2005 and served as editor and principal contributor until it went on hiatus in 2010. He has also been published in AMP and Loud Fast Rules! (in print) as well as Glide and FensePost on the web. He has been an avid record collector since he was seven years old and enjoys sharing his love of music from the common to the esoteric.

3 thoughts on “Townes Van Zandt – Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas

  1. Chuck

    I’m only six songs in but you touched on so much important stuff in this review, not just about this album but about live albums in general.

    This is the kind of show I love. You can tell it’s a small crowd. You can tell the audience is into it because, as TVZ says after “Pancho & Lefty,” “Man, I never heard it so quiet in here before.” You can tell TVZ is into it just by listening to his performances. But then there’s all the other stuff, the stuff that usually gets edited out of live albums: the corny comments, the dirty jokes, the banter with the audience. (I love that someone in the audience is announcing all the things that are upstairs before the emcee does on the opening track.) I agree, the only thing missing is the glasses breaking.

    There’s no universal definition of a great live album but I’m with you that it needs to be more than just a bunch of performances edited together with an applause track on top of it. Unfortunately, that’s usually what we get, if we’re lucky. If we were to define a great live album, though, this would be a mighty fine place to start.

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  2. bobvinyl Post author

    There were some surprises in that list. I do think there is a distinction between a live in the studio recording and a live with an audience recording. The former is not necessarily a fake (though often it is). All of the Peel Sessions are live in the Radio 1 studio and they have very different feel than “produced” studio tracks. But I guess the big difference is that there is no sense of passing them off as something they are not.

    The article mentions Alive II, but I think Alive was also largely overdubs. Also, isn’t the second Dead record a live recording doctored in the studio? The latter was not marketed as “live,” so I understand that is different. I think it raises the question of whether there is value in these fake live recordings too. The Alive records, if you can stomach Kiss, actually turned out pretty well. I think Paul Stanley, when he finally fessed up, said that you would not have heard the vocals otherwise. I think we can all agree that the sham of it all is a bad thing, but does that make the end result bad or just the marketing? I still like the single show, no overdubs, all the bumps and bruises approach and to me that is a true live recording that captures something amazing, but I wonder if there is room for semi-live recordings too. I mean, do we need Kiss to be authentic?

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  3. Chuck

    I think that’s a fair point about Kiss. Oddly, not every live show is only about the music, and Kiss is a perfect example.

    We also have to remember that not everyone wants the same thing out of a concert or a live recording. When I go see a band I love, I want them to turn the songs inside out, to improvise and experiment and explore, to show secrets in the songs that aren’t on the record. I love hearing the extra verses or the stretched out arrangement or the improvisational solos. But a lot of people go to concerts and want to hear a song they know that reflects the excitement of being performed live in the moment, or they buy a live album because they want the hits.

    I saw Tricky in the late ’90s and he did a then-unreleased song called Bury the Evidence that was insane. It was like 10 or 12 minutes long and it built and built and built. Every pass through the chord progression, the band would crank it up a notch, and each time you’d think, “It can’t get any more powerful than this” and then they’d elevate it even higher. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever experienced in concert. That’s the kind of stuff I love experiencing live, those things that are filled with mistakes and flubs and broken glasses in the background, but are still perfect in spite of (or because of) the intensity of the moment.

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