Wednesday, January 26, 2011

CD Odyssey Disc 231: Earle, Van Zandt and Clark

This week's album I actually brought over to a friend's place on the weekend just to share some of the tracks. Odd that it should be rolled so soon after. Coincidence or conspiracy?

Disc 231 is...Together At the Bluebird Cafe
Artist: Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark

Year of Release: Even though the CD was published later, the concert was in 1995, so...1995.

What’s Up With The Cover?: A picture of our three artists. Naturally Townes Van Zandt is in the middle, and naturally he's wearing a shirt featuring playing cards. RIP, Townes.

How I Came To Know It: I saw this album in Ditch Records last year while poking around for more Townes Van Zandt albums. When I saw it had rare live tracks from Steve Earle AND Townes Van Zandt, I had to have it. Because of this record, I discovered Guy Clark - at the time as an afterthought.

How It Stacks Up: This is a live concert album, so it doesn't really stack up against the studio albums I have for the three contributors. Let's just say I like it.

Rating: 4 stars.

"Together At The Bluebird Cafe" was a benefit concert put on by Earle, Van Zandt and Clark in support of the Interfaith Dental Clinic. The Clinic provides free dental services to those who can't afford it, so it was a good cause.

Beyond this, it is a good record. I'm not a huge fan of live albums, but this is one of the better ones I've heard. It is done in a style called "in-the-round" (thanks Wikipedia) which means that the three artists just take turns singing their songs. Although I've never seen video, it sounds like they all stay on stage during each others' performance, and it is quite an intimate venue. I'd give my right arm to have seen this show live (I would've been 25).

OK, I wouldn't give my right arm - but only because I really like having two arms, but I would've liked to have seen it nevertheless.

Each player on the record relies on a single guitar, and the album is very stripped down folk country of the very best kind. Occasionally one artist will back up another, but even this is rare. I also can hear an uncredited Emmylou Harris make an appearance in the background vocals of Guy Clark's "Immigrant Eyes" (is there any album Emmylou Harris doesn't do background vocals for? I hope not...).

Earle is at his best, just having gotten straight after years of alcohol and drug abuse. Timeline wise this record is right between 1995's "Train A'Comin'" (reviewed at Disc 127) and 1996's "I Feel Alright" (reviewed way back at Disc 14). Highlights include understated and humble versions of "My Old Friend the Blues" and "Valentine's Day", and the crowd pleasing "I Ain't Ever Satisfied." This latter track Earle has in his recent tour's set list and is a great time, as he gets the audience to sing along in full throat every time. Let's just say you leave satisfied.

My favourite Earle track, though, is an acoustic version of "Copperhead Road". I've heard this done in concert as well, and I love it stripped down to a single guitar. I think it is how the song was born to be played. My only minor quibble is that for some reason Steve skips the first verse. It's the last song on the album, so maybe their rental of the Bluebird Cafe was up or something.

Van Zandt is not at the top of his game vocally, but the man writes songs that are too compelling to be denied. Also, you get a glimpse of his famous humour, with the most entertaining banter coming from him. In one story he tells of getting drunk and losing a gold tooth in a game of dice. I won't give the ending away, except to say it features vice grips and Southern Comfort.

At other times, Van Zandt's storytelling is bitter sweet. He openly admits that while some of his friends (including Steve Earle) have gotten their lives straightened out, he is still working on it. Shortly after this concert, Van Zandt would be dead, a victim of his ongoing alcohol abuse.

Since I already knew Van Zandt and Earle were great, the find on this record for me was Guy Clark. When I bought the album, Clark was basically the 'get one free' in my 'buy two' purchase. I was to be more than pleasantly surprised.

Like Townes Van Zandt, Clark is one of those singer/songwriters that musicians know and love, but aren't that commercially successful. He is a master storyteller, almost a musical Hemmingway in the way he delivers deeply evocative themes through very simple language.

Standout Guy Clark songs on the record include a song that makes you feel like you can fly ("The Cape"), and a song about the death of Clark's father called "Randall Knife" which chokes me up every time I hear it.

The one I gravitated to on this listen was "Dublin Blues", which is an exquisite song, both musically and lyrically, about the regret of lost love, and how travelling the world will only remind you that unhappiness is portable. It begins:

"I wish I was in Austin, in the Chili Parlour Bar
Drinking Mad Dog Margueritas and not carin' where you are.
But here I sit in Dublin, just rollin' cigarettes
Holdin' back and chokin' back the shakes with every breath."

Hearing Guy Clark naturally made me race out to buy something by him, but I ended up with a 1978 record that I did not enjoy. In fact, I'm selling it and it will be "Disc Not Appearing In This Blog." Fortunately, shortly thereafter, I found his 1995 album "Dublin Blues" which has the studio version of every excellent track on "Live At The Bluebird Cafe" and a few other gems besides.

One of the secrets to a good live album is capturing the right balance between performance (should be most of it) and a bit of entertaining banter (should be used judiciously but not completely ignored). This album strikes the perfect Banter Balance, and captures three artists at very interesting stages of their respective careers. It is a snapshot of musical history not to be missed.

Best tracks: So many, but I'll go with 3 from each. Steve Earle: My Old Friend The Blues, Tom Ames' Prayer and Copperhead Road. For Van Zandt: A Song For, Tecumseh Valley and Pancho and Lefty. For Clark: The Cape, Randall Knife and Dublin Blues.

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