By Paul T. Mueller
There were few tears but plenty of laughter and good fellowship at the 20th annual Townes Van Zandt wake, held Jan. 1 at the Old Quarter Acoustic Café in Galveston, Texas. The event takes place every year on the anniversary of the 1997 death of the revered singer-songwriter from Texas. Free to the public and open to anyone who wants to get onstage and play, it’s one of the signature events at the iconic dive bar in downtown Galveston. The club is the successor to the Houston venue where Townes Van Zandt recorded one of his best-known albums, 1973’s Live at the Old Quarter; it was founded and, until recently, owned by musician and former Van Zandt bandmate Rex Bell, who goes by “Wrecks.”
The wake, which this year also honored Guy Clark and Leonard Cohen, started about 6:30 p.m. and ran until a little after 2 a.m. Scores of music fans packed the tiny club, at times almost certainly exceeding its legal capacity. Over the course of the evening, something like 25 performers, both professional and amateur, performed nearly 30 of Van Zandt’s songs (some were covered by more than one artist), sometimes assisted by the audience. The only rule (and it was broken once or twice) was that the songs had to be ones written by Van Zandt, Clark and Cohen. Fifteen different Clark songs were performed, along with four of Cohen’s.
The line between amateur and professional seemed a bit blurry at times, but those performing included Bell and his wife, Janet; singer-songwriters Joanna Gibson, Matt Harlan, Marina Rocks, Tommy Lewis, Robert Cline Jr., Chuck Hawthorne, Drew Landry, Charlie Harrison, Cody Austin, Lazarus Nichols, Smith & Turner, and Libby Koch. Most performers were from Texas, but some came from beyond the borders of the Lone Star State, including one from Virginia and Dutch musician Jacques Mees, touring Texas for the first time with vocalist Jolanda Haanskorf.
Gary Reagan, an accomplished acoustic guitarist and longtime wake attendee, backed many performers with beautiful picking and slide work as well as harmony vocals. “Playing ‘Rex’s Blues’ with the Rex for almost 20 years is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” he noted.
During his time onstage, and in the course of introducing other performers, Bell offered stories about and memories of his old friend, describing him as “a beautiful, beautiful man” who, despite his demons, never took out his frustrations on anyone else. Bell, who recently sold the Old Quarter and plans to relocate to Arkansas, noted that he had suffered a stroke last July 4, but “I’m making a great comeback.” During one of his mini-sets he sang “Rex’s Blues,” which Townes Van Zandt wrote about him decades ago. “I hated that song,” Bell said, but eventually reconciled himself to it. Two other artists also performed the song, despite what one said was an “unwritten rule” that it not be played. Other songs that got multiple readings included the lovely “If I Needed You,” sweetly done by Bell and Gibson, and the dark and nihilistic “Nothin’.” Marina Rocks’ solo rendition of the latter was suffused with a scary intensity worthy of Townes himself; it was one of the standout performances of the evening.
Other notable performances included a heartfelt, if somewhat halting, version of “Tecumseh Valley” by a man who gave his name as Robert and said he’d traveled from Virginia; a suitably sad rendition of “Marie” by Bobby Hoskins, whose gruff delivery on that song and two by Clark left the sometimes chatty audience in churchlike silence, and a cheerful take on Clark’s “Stuff That Works” by a colorfully dressed lady who introduced herself as “Jackie Sue, the next big thing” and told the audience, “I believe the Old Quarter is stuff that works!”
Gracing a small table onstage, and available to anyone in need of a bit of liquid courage, were a party-size bottle of vodka and a two-liter bottle of Diet Orange Crush – reportedly the ingredients of Townes’ cocktail of choice. Several performers, amateur and professional alike, partook of these libations over the course of the evening.
Gibson, the evening’s first performer, said she had attended every Townes wake since the event’s founding. “What a great way to start the new year,” she noted. Gibson was one of the few to take on Cohen’s catalog, leading off with nice renditions of “If It Be Your Will” and “Suzanne.” Other Cohen interpreters included Nichols, with a hoarse but heartfelt “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and Galveston’s own Billy Marabella, whose rendition of “Suzanne” included a recounting of his personal history with the song.
The wake ended with a fine rendition of Van Zandt’s “Snowin’ on Raton,” with Matt Harlan, Libby Koch, Chuck Hawthorne, Tommy Lewis and Charlie Harrison taking turns on vocals. As the last few audience members dispersed into the foggy streets of Galveston, performers and club staff gathered onstage with Wrecks and Janet for a group photo.