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Pop Music Review

Townes, Without Pity

Songwriter Van Zandt is remembered in a musical tribute.

March 04, 1997|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

It's one of the lingering mysteries of the pop experience: How can one be so comforted and inspired by music that is rooted in darkness and despair?

Take Townes Van Zandt, the late, great Texas songwriter whose legacy was saluted in a stirring 6 1/2-hour tribute concert Sunday at the Ash Grove.

Van Zandt, who was 52 when he died of a heart attack on New Year's Day, battled much of his life against bouts of depression that, ironically, both gave him compelling subject matter for his blues, country and folk-tinged songs, and yet short-circuited his career commercially by draining him of energy.

Though he never had a Top 40 hit with his own records, some of his songs became hits for such artists as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris--notably the classic "Pancho and Lefty" and "If I Needed You."

Moreover, Van Zandt's restless uncompromising spirit and keen songwriting craft made him a hero and model to a wide range of songwriters, including Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely and Neil Young.

From Sunday's performers, it was frequently impossible to tell which of the more than a dozen singers who joined in the salute actually knew Van Zandt and which were simply touched by his music.

But all of them--from a Los Angeles contingent that included Peter Case, Mare Winningham and Carla Olson to a parade of Austin and Nashville artists that featured Butch Hancock, David Olney and Kimmie Rhodes--sang Van Zandt's music with warmth and affection.

The most moving and liberating moment, however, was when a lanky young man with the same shock of dark hair and inquisitive eyes as the noted Texas songwriter took the stage.

"Thank you for coming," said John Townes Van Zandt, the 27-year-old son of the man whose songs so often spoke of pain and lost dreams.

As striking as young Van Zandt's appearance was his upbeat demeanor.

"I know that tributes to people who have died . . . tend to get a little heavy, but Townes had a sense of humor that was unmatched," said the son, smiling broadly as if remembering some of that humor as he spoke.

This Van Zandt, who has chosen to work as a fly-fishing guide rather than pursue a musical career, then sang a silly song that his father performed for him years ago--a song about how choice shrimps are seduced by a newspaper ad into thinking they are winning a free trip to New Orleans by jumping in the fisherman's net.

And Van Zandt wasn't the only one to employ humor. Bob Neuwirth, another songwriter with a strong independent vision, told some Van Zandt jokes. And Butch Hancock, the evening's emcee, related a dream in which Van Zandt went to heaven and searched out St. Peter, who had become a bartender.

If the stories personalized the man, they also underscored why even Van Zandt's darkest tunes do lift the spirits. They are the works of a man who had the courage and will to fight back, with such insight and eloquence, against his disappointments and demons rather than be rendered powerless by them.

As such, it reflects the triumph of the human spirit--and that spirit was toasted during the finale Sunday when most of the night's cast joined on a rousing version of "Pancho and Lefty," the most enduring of Van Zandt's songs.

At the end, the audience stood in ovation. The applause, one sensed, was for the song and for Van Zandt, but also for the troubadour tradition that continues to rally against the true forces of darkness and despair: apathy and surrender.

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