So Hard plays to a packed house at the TVZ Tribute Photo by Ed Forman
I couldn’t find a spot closer than Neil Avenue. Having been deserted by my brother and nearly squashed by a bus when I attempted a High Street drop-off, there is no choice remaining but to park the car and start hauling equipment up the hill to Dick’s Den. When I finally get there, a little out of breath, I open the door and walk into mayhem. The place is absolutely jammed. I am literally pushing through the crowd, trying to keep my guitar from being knocked out of my hands. It’s the 9th annual Columbus tribute to the late, great Townes Van Zandt. Dan Dougan is onstage, opening the event with the self-penned “Song for Townes.” I squeeze my way into the pool room, which has been turned into a de facto musician’s lounge.Veterans of the event have preemptively scotched any attempt to start a game by loading the table with guitar cases. I add mine to the pile, take a deep breath and head back to see the end of Dougan’s set. Wowee, there are a crap-ton of people here and they are all very drunk. Townes Van Zandt (1944-1997) was one of the great American songwriters of the 20th century. Although his studio albums often suffered from overproduction, his live albums are some of the best music ever recorded. Live at the Old Quarter is a must-have. Although largely ignored in his own lifetime, the notoriously self-destructive Van Zandt’s legend has grown considerably over the last decade. He certainly has fans in Columbus; the crowd is a melting pot of hippies, hipsters and country fans, along with a sprinkling of unclassifiable Guys with Beards. Van Zandt spent most of his life playing to small audiences, but in 2014 I’d bet he could sell out the Newport. The genesis of the tribute was a conversation outside of a nightclub between Eric Nassau and Casey Velker in 2005. Discovering a mutual interest in Van Zandt, the two decided to explore the feasibility of a tribute concert to be held on Van Zandt’s birthday, March 7th. When the idea was floated to other local musicians, they were surprised by the enthusiasm for Van Zandt’s work. “People just came out of the woodwork asking to play the show” remembers Nassau. From the start, the event has been a benefit, and raises money for local NPR station WCBE. The usual image of Van Zandt’s music is beautiful, haunting acoustic ballads, an area in which he certainly excelled. A parallel Cincinnati tribute, “Townes in the Round,” reflects this, appearing to be a respectful seated affair featuring “some of the best Cincinnati singer-songwriters.” The Columbus affair is certainly capable of beauty -- witness Mark Sims and Virginia Pishioneri’s version of “My Proud Mountains” early in the evening. It also takes a turn to the loud and raucous, celebrating Van Zant’s excellent blues, country epics like “Pancho and Lefty” and even novelty songs. Tonight, the audience is fully engaged, crowding around the small Dick’s Den stage. The lineup alternates solo acts with full on bands translating Van Zandt’s songs into electric blues, rock and bluegrass. This is a nice change from years past, where solo acts played early and bands played late (to be fair, I always have been prejudiced against large doses of acoustic guitar). It’s also really cool to see performers like Andy Gallagher and Jack Parker get up by themselves between rock acts, take over the room and get people moving. Following my own set, I slip back out into the crowd to take down some highlights (if you played after 12:45 I apologize, my notes past that point are stained with Maker’s Mark and are fairly incoherent). Traveling all the way from Knox County, the Stateline Sinners do a wonderfully sincere rendition of “Like a Summer Thursday,” with great harmonies and guitar work. Lauren Lever offers up a chilling version of “St. John the Gambler,” and So Hard whips up an alcohol soaked sing-a-long with the gospel infused “Two Hands.” Later in the evening, The Relentless Mules play a killer string band arrangement of what might be Van Zandt’s greatest song, “Lungs.” Judging from their stage demeanor, the Mules might actually be undead zombies, but their music tonight is hauntingly stark and just the right amount of terrifying. It’s great to see that this town can put on a show of this size where audience and performers unite over the mutual love of a songwriter. You don’t have to be a virtuoso to play – if you have the guts to get up on that claustrophobic little stage you’ll receive some appreciation. It’s a nice communion, and it’s a hell of a good time.

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