The late Townes Van Zandt was a songwriter who inspired others that practice the craft to the heights of praise, with Steve Earle's offer to testify on Bob Dylan's coffee table the most often cited. Van Zandt no doubt also inspired, and continues to inspire, bouts of self-doubt in those same people because, aw shit, he already wrote all the best songs and minted all the best images. After "Tecumseh Valley" and "To Live Is to Fly" and after "Your breath's as hard as kerosene" and "But the moccasins are treadin' ice/And leavin' strange designs," there's not all that much left for anybody else.
If you haven't yet checked out Van Zandt, then this legendary live album, recorded in July of '73 and originally released on Tomato in '77, is the perfect place to start. It's been expanded to two discs in this most recent incarnation, making room for 22 Van Zandt originals and four covers penned by the likes of Merle Travis, Lightin' Hopkins and Bo Diddley. There's an undeniable feeling of something important taking place--not quite history being made, but awfully close--as Van Zandt offers "Pancho & Lefty," "Rex's Blues," "Waiting 'Round to Die," and a host of other rugged, often bluesy folk songs to a crowd that's so ready yet respectful that it seems to surprise even him. ("Man, I never heard it that quiet in here before," says Van Zandt at one point.)
The performance is as lean and sinewy as the shirtless Van Zandt on the cover -- just a man, his guitar, and a bunch of Texas poetry delivered in a prematurely weathered voice that sounds like it's endured many an all-night card game with Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold. Almost 30 years after its birth, Live at the Old Quarter remains a compelling document of both a time and a talent.