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Guy Clark shines, while Townes Van Zandt burns

Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, April 13, 1996

By Roy Kasten

CHICAGO - Judging from the talk in the waiting area before the start of the Townes Van Zandt/Guy Clark show, the middle-aged crowd had come to see Van Zandt, the mythical Texas songwriter, many never having seen him before.

But by the end of the second of two sold-out shows at the 275-seat setting, it was the other Texan, Guy Clark, who won their hearts .

Van Zandt sauntered in for his show, looking frail next to the Gibson Jumbo he carried. "It's a real pleasure to be here, but when you been where I been it's a pleasure to be anywhere," he said as he plugged in. His hands looked weathered as the bluesmen he emulates, and his arms, torso, and legs, were as thin as a shadow cast on the wall. And he'd been drinking, of course.

He began with "Loretta," a driving, barroom number, but skipped a verse; all the while, in between staggered strums, he rubbed his chin and touched his mouth, as though lost in deep thoughts of something far off. His boots tapped loudly on the stage.

Perhaps as an ode to the freezing Chicago wind, he played "Snowin' On Raton," strumming lightly and erratically, almost singing it acapella. At the end he explained how the night before he had gotten tangled up in his guitar cord. "Whew, man, I fell hard," he said, "but I'm a good faller."

He played a favorite Lightnin' Hopkins medly "My Starter Won't Start/Short-Haired Woman Blues," but stopped midway to apologize for his picking, though the audience called out encourgements. When he finished he half-whispered, "I'm bleeding from the inside." A young man came on stage and put his arm around him, whispering support, but Van Zandt pulled back. He then tried to play "Fraulien," one of the first songs he ever learne, -but only made it through half. He said he just couldn't play anymore, but agreed to try "Pancho and Lefty."

"I don't know if I'll remember the words," he began. But with the first lines, "Livin' on the road, my friend, was gonna keep you free and clean/now you wear your skin like iron/and your breath's as hard as kerosene," Van Zandt's voice turned calm and confident. With the next lines, "you weren't your mama's only boy, but her favorite one it seems," his voice rose with a pentecostal fervor. He's sung "Pancho and Lefty" a thousand times, but this night he gave it the passion and purity of a man's final testament.

And although he only played for a half-hour, his singing on perhaps his greatest song captured and gave to the audience the spirit of his whole beautiful, relentless life.

Clark and his son Travis soon came on stage, dressed as for a lazy afternoon of fishing. Rather than apologizing forVan Zandt's short set, Clark said, "We have a policy of no mercy towards Townes," and jumped into three celebratory tunes from the early record "Old No. 1": "Baton Rouge," "Texas 1947,"a song about a train that roared through Clark's home as a boy, and "L.A. Freeway."

Clark wanted to lighten the mood; still, one of the most affecting moments came when he offered "a bit of Van Zandt's wisdom" and quoted two verses of Van Zandt's funny, mysterious song "Two Girls," and then played with grace and respect "Don't You Take it Too Bad." He smiled and laughed throughout the evening, introducing almost every song with a joke.

Clark's voice has ripened over the years, becoming a darker, more resonant instrument. It was a pleasure to hear the older songs with his richer, wiser tone. He sang each ballad just a half-beat slower, each word becoming clear and intimate, like the voice of an old friend. His guitar playing was economical and subtle, and he let Travis explore warm, almost jazz-like melodies on the acoustic bass.

"I've never had as much fun playing as I do with Travis," Clark said, though he didn't have to. You could see it in his face.

If the evening had a masterpiece, it was a request, "Randall Knife," a song he wrote early in his career but included on last year's "Dublin Blues." The song is about his father and the knife he prized. Clark unplugged his six-string, stepped to the front of the stage, out of the spot light, so that his tall, strong body became dark and shadowy, and gently finger-picked the song. The hall turned silent, people barely moved, and you could hear every note and every breath.

After more than an hour, Clark was done for the night. The crowd smiled and buzzed about the show as they left.

Guy Clark's set list:
Baton Rouge
Texas 1947
L.A. Freeway
Don't You Take it Too Bad (Van Zandt composition)
Home Grown Tomatoes ("a love song")
Ramblin Jack Said ("They don't call him Ramblin' Jack `cause he travels a lot.")
The Cape
Baby Took a Limo to Memphis
Randall Knife
Desperados Waiting for a Train
Texas Cookin'
Dublin Blues

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