It may not be as noteworthy as those tapes of Bob Dylan performing around the University of Minnesota campus 13 years earlier, but it’s better. A 1973 bootleg recording of the late, great Townes Van Zandt performing at the Whole in the U’s Coffman Union has become something of a hot item among the Texas songwriting legend’s cultish fan base. Yesterday, the popular Los Angeles music blog Aquarium Drunkard even posted a link to download the hour-long, 14-song performance in full.
“For a guy whose battles with the bottle were legendary,” AQ writer T. Wilcox fittingly wrote, “his focus is laser-sharp here, every syllable perfectly placed, every fingerpicked guitar line cutting to the quick.”
Famously heralded by Steve Earle as “the best songwriter in the whole world -- and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that,” Van Zandt was near a peak in 1973, fresh off releasing two of his best albums a year earlier, “High, Low and in Between” and “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.” Like most of his live recordings, the Whole set features nothing but the dude and his guitar (many of his studio albums were nearly that raw, too). Among the songs are the requisite “Pancho and Lefty,” which would become a No. 1 country hit for Willie and Merle 10 years later, plus “For the Sake of the Song,” “Tecumseh Valley” and the epic “Mr. Mudd & Mr. Gold.” A stark and wounded cover of Johnny Cash’s “Drunken Ira Hayes” was also thrown in.
Steve Fingerett, who was one of the Whole’s bookers in those days, said of that night Townes came to town, “I don’t remember a lot of specifics from the show, but I certainly do remember it positively.” Back then, the Whole was a bona-fide coffeehouse and more of a musical hotbed, with singer/songwriters of Van Zandt’s ilk its mainstay. Fingerett said he has no idea who recorded this show or how, though. “It must be literally a bootleg,” he said.
While old Van Zandt recordings seemed to be released as frequently as new Ryan Adams records -- a two-disc collection of unreleased studio tracks arrives Feb. 5 -- the audio of the Whole concert does feature occasional hisses and imperfections that could prevent it from ever being formally released. So go ahead and enjoy it informally. One blog has the set posted as a stream, or numerous sites include download links (here's a verified link that worked fine).
Any of you Twin Cities music vets remember the show? Tell us about it.