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.