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Artist: Townes van Zandt
Label: Normal Records
Jester Lounge 1966

This album, which may be the earliest extant recording of Townes Van Zandt at a commercial performing venue, immediately brings to mind the fabled Sun Sessions of Elvis Presley.

Both recordings document young performers at the hopeful threshhold of their professional music careers (Elvis age 19, Townes age 22). Their performances are fresh and unjaded, guided by instinct rather than experience or training. . . voices bursting with exhilaration at the simple thrill of letting loose and singing music they love. There is no self-consciousness, no overt stylization, no world-weariness here, and certainly no hint of the darkness and tragedy that would later consume the lives of both men. The Sun Sessions and Live at the Jester Lounge offer a fascinating portrait of two young singers on the brink of musical self-discovery, and it is a pleasure to share in the brilliance and wonder of those moments captured for posterity more by accident than design.

In 1966, Townes Van Zandt was learning his craft as a singer-songwriter and had landed a spot as a “one-man house band” at the Jester. The Jester was a small nightclub on Westheimer Boulevard in the city’s Montrose section, the flamboyant bohemian quarter where young people and music lovers flocked to enjoy the sights and sounds of the mid-’60s counter culture, Houston-style. Townes had come to Houston the year before after dropping out of University of Colorado and deciding to seek his fortune as a musician. The Jester was, Townes recalled, “the first place I ever got paid real money for singing.”

The Jester was a gathering place for performers across the folk music spectrum. Townes’ chief blues influence, the legendary Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins, played there; so did Henry John Deutchendorf (aka John Denver) and a satirical duo named Frank and Kay, which consisted of songwriter-guitarist Frank Davis and eventual 1980s’ country superstar K.T. Oslin. Novice folkies from the area’s colleges mixed with local pros Don Sanders, Mickey Newbury and Rex Bell as well as recent migrants Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark, destined to shortly make their mark in national pop and country circles.

The material on this CD is a prime example of the repertoire-influenced-by-context principle, in this case tunes that appealed to the good time-seeking, beer-drinking audiences Townes encountered at his club gigs during this period. There are topical humor pieces about sex, booze and pop culture (Talkin' Birth Control Pill Blues, Talkin’ Thunderbird Blues, Talkin’ Karate Blues) and a wide range of light and dark bluesy numbers (jazzman Richard Jones’ classic Trouble in Mind, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Hello Central and Townes’ own Badly Mistreated Blues, Louisiana Girl Blues, Mustang Blues, Black Crow Blues). Three country standards (Jimmie Rodgers’ T for Texas, the Carter Family’s Cannon Ball Blues, Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry) round out the collection.

Of Townes’ original songs, Colorado Bound is the only one that presages the poetic, image-laden word painting that would become a hallmark of his songwriting style and be honed to perfection just two years later on his first commercial recording, Poppy Records’ For the Sake of the Song. Yet even in a basic blues like Black Crow Blues, he was already innovatively reworking the traditional structure to reflect his own emerging lyrical aesthetic:

The black crow's a-screaming, the yellow sun's warm
The grass tumbles tall down the hill
There's a cold wind is building, it's bringin' a storm
When the call of the black crow goes still
When the call of the black crow goes still

In an interview for Picking Up The Tempo (Issue #20, April, 1977), Townes cited the role the Jester Lounge played in his songwriting development:

I started writing funny songs, not dirty songs, but funny bar room type just to get the audience. I was playing these beer joints and used to play folk songs and it got a bit rowdy. They wanted some funny songs and I hadn't got any, so I wrote some. Then I wrote serious songs.

In fact, he avowed, the Jester played an important role in generating one of the most compelling songs he ever wrote. “My first serious song was Waitin' Around to Die. I talked to this old man for a while and he kinda put out these vibrations. I was sitting at the bar of the Jester Lounge one afternoon drinking beer, thinking about him, and just wrote it down.”

No live recording of Townes would be complete without a sampling of his deadpan, casually absurdist humor. Two Martineyes!! and Gorilla Catchers reveal him as a skilled raconteur, already able at this stage of his career to capture listeners through story as well as song.

Live at the Jester Lounge — Houston, Texas, 1966 shows a rarely-seen, unabashedly joyous side of a songwriter known mostly for his intense seriousness and uncompromising explorations of psychic angst. The essence of the mature artist Townes Van Zandt would become is here in all its natural, soon-to-blossom glory.

Enjoy!

— L.E. McCullough, March 7, 2004

     

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