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Townes Van Zandt

Rear View Mirror, The Highway Kind – 1997 (Sugar Hill)

Reviewed by Roy Kasten

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CDs by Townes Van Zandt

No greater songwriter ever drew a breath than the late Townes Van Zandt. He wrote few hit songs, but he offered the best documents of the soul we'll ever have. They stand sturdily beside the finest art of any form or time. "Rear View Mirror" catches the troubadour live, his true element, and at a vocal and instrumental peak.

Made in 1979 at the Blue Onion in Norman, Okla. (the liner notes neglect these details), Van Zandt is joined by Danny Rowland on guitar and Owen Cody on fiddle; they draw out melodies and colors ideally. Soundboard buzz creeps in occasionally, and the hushed warmth of "Live at the Old Quarter" isn't quite here. Nonetheless this CD contains definitive versions of "Pancho and Lefty," "Dollar Bill Blues," "Lungs," "Flying Shoes," and "Waiting Round to Die." It will amaze those new to Van Zandt and satisfy his devotees as well.

"The Highway Kind is a different matter."A mixture of unreleased studio recordings (covers of "Lost Highway" and "Wreck on the Highway") and live solo versions of three songs from "No Deeper Blue" and assorted chestnuts, both obscure originals ("My Proud Mountains" and "Rake") and songs by friends (Guy Clarks's "Dublin Blues"). It is a harsh, black record, a death letter from an artist in his twilight, his voice nearly destroyed but still capable, on good nights, of cutting power. To hear the spare "Lover's Lullabye" (mislabled as "A Song For") is to taste ecstasy; to hear the stumbling "Darcy Farrow" is unnecessary.

Hopefully those new to his work will look first to "Rear View Mirror" and his many studio recordings, and when satisfied with TVZ in his prime, perhaps then, only then, should they turn to his late, trembling recordings.