Live and Well

Just because bands are cashing in on live albums this Christmas season doesn't mean they can't get it right

Townes Van Zandt,Live at Union Chapel, London, England (Tomato)

Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas is Van Zandt's definitive statement, recorded in 1973 at the height of his powers--solo and acoustic, his songs stripped to the bone. Recorded more than 20 years after that classic live set, Live at Union Chapel features an older, wiser Townes--torn all to hell by two decades of drinking and depression, his voice and guitar playing a step behind his former self but his songs no worse for the wear. The Texas folk legend would be dead in less than three years, but on this night in 1994, he was in fine spirits (and probably downing some), playing one of England's most respectable venues for an audience of more than a thousand people. While the track selection repeats some 10 songs from Live at the Old Quarter, it's hard to complain when they're as stunning as "Two Girls" or "Pancho & Lefty." Underrated late period compositions like "The Catfish Song" and "Blaze's Blues" round out the set, the latter introduced with a hilarious tale recalling the tragic death of Austin singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, who left Townes a guitar in hock but kept the pawn ticket in the pocket of the suit he was buried in. Stories such as these make Townes' live albums essential; his songs may be sadder than sad, but the guy that sang them was pretty damn funny, too. --N.W.B.

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