Visitors to the tiny dimly lit Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe in Galveston can't help but notice a hodgepodge shrine to venerable Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. On a wall next to the stage, a collection of photographs attempts to capture some of the essence of that troubled troubadour who died on January 1, 1997, at age 52. But like the man himself, Van Zandt's spirit is elusive; it's not easily transmitted through old photos. In fact, the musical ghost of Townes Van Zandt really appears only one day a year: when his peers, friends and protégés gather to sing his praises.
To Old Quarter owner Rex "Wrecks" Bell, the death of Van Zandt, his former bandmate, still stings. Nonetheless, the tribute that Bell organizes each New Year's Day has taken on a celebratory aura, with musicians from various parts of Texas (and sometimes beyond the border) gathering once a year to play Van Zandt's songs in an all-night musical klatch. "All Van Zandt, all the time," as Bell puts it.
Bell, who was the bassist for Van Zandt's backing band, the Hemmer Ridge Mountain Boys, during a couple of lengthy, boozy tours, as usual will host the party, along with another Hemmer Ridge alum, flat-picker Mickey White.
Besides swapping Van Zandt yarns and marveling at how many different versions of "Pancho and Lefty" and "If I Needed You" can be sung in one evening, you will find that this year's wake has a purpose beyond collective mourning and solace. Van Zandt's son, Will, was seriously injured in an auto accident this summer, and Bell plans to auction off some autographed Van Zandt memorabilia to raise funds for Will's medical bills.
The music starts shortly after 7 p.m. and continues until sometime the next morning, when Bell runs out of his legendary "cold frosted mugs," which is musician-speak for the tiny plastic cups in which he serves draft beer.