Ever since his father died of a heart attack on January 1, 1997, J.T. Van Zandt has pretty much stayed clear of the in-fighting around the legacy that iconoclastic singer Townes Van Zandt left behind. And certainly J.T. has never used his famous name to advance his career -- he performs haphazardly and reluctantly.
One of J.T.'s biggest supporters, professionally and emotionally, has been Wrecks Bell, the irascible owner of Galveston's Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe. Bell, who played bass and shared plenty of whiskey with Townes in days gone by, hosts an annual wake on the anniversary of the songwriter's death.
This year's version is also a CD release party. At Bell's urging, J.T. has performed a couple of times a year at the club, including the night of July 27, which was captured on Live at the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe, a lengthy, 17-track live CD, split between the two artists. The recording will appeal to the legion of Townes fanatics who will snap up anything bearing the surname, even though there are a few production issues, like a heavy hand on the reverb knob.
Sixth Annual Townes Van Zandt Wake
Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe, 413 20th Street, Galveston
Thursday, January 1; 409-762-9199
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Perhaps J.T. is channeling his father's torment with his self-penned lead-off track, "Take Me While I'm Strong," which J.T. quips is one of his "happy" songs. In it the protagonist prays for death to come sooner rather than later, before the demons have a chance to completely take over. He also includes three of his father's songs, such as "If I Needed You," in which he seems uncomfortable with the weight of the Townes legacy -- he slips off-key several times, and the melancholy content of one of his father's most heart-wrenching ballads causes him to sound hesitant.
The disc shifts gears considerably when Bell and his open-mike-night house duo, the Gulf Coast Orchestra, take over, as Bell simply seems more excited than J.T. about the prospects of putting out a record. Bell displays a much wider vocal range than on his two previous studio releases, aided by lead guitarist Gary Ragan's delicate touch on backup vocals. Right off the bat, Bell's seasoned singing churns away authoritatively on a cover of Blaze Foley's "If I Could Only Fly."
Two highlights are "Whiskey Maybe," Bell's lyrical lament about his own well-documented battle with the bottle, and the Neil Young-ish "Rockin' the Republicans," a Rich Minus-penned take on an oft-maligned appearance by the Beach Boys at the White House.
Bell also includes three Townes songs in his set, including "Lookin' for You," Townes's ode to "fast living and slow suicide." It's aptly chosen, in a spooky way. Picture Bell singing, the substantial gallery of Townes portraits and photos that adorn an entire wall of the club peering over his left shoulder: "And when the curtain comes tumbling down / I'll be somewhere hanging round with my heart laid out on the ground / looking for you, still looking for you." You'll swear the eyes follow you around the room.