I wonder how the late Townes Van Zandt would feel if he knew two or three of his songs provided 15 minutes of fame and spotlight to a dozen-and-a-half performers in a crazy little time warp of a place called Dick's Den? Given the sometimes ragged but nearly always heartfelt performances Friday night in a very packed Den, I think he would've been mildly amused and secretly deeply satisfied. Because there is something very, very special about TVZ's lyrics. Has anybody lyrically captured the essence of lives lived with more naked poignancy? And with novella-like depth and tight economy, never a wasted word or an unnecessary image? If nothing else, if that were my work being sung, sometimes butchered, I'd have been prouder than a three-legged dog winning the Kentucky Derby. The glory was ragged, but the work stands. It should be noted, in my opinion anyway, Townes is probably the single greatest underrated American songwriter in our recent musical history. As much as I love tribute nights to the Beatles, Stones and Dylan, I think it's great guys like Eric Nassau organize these TVZ nights. And it's reassuring so many aspiring singer/songwriter types love his work. Maybe some of it'll rub off. Of course, no tribute night could get off to a stranger start than when the living legend Dan Dougan begins the evening's worship with an original song about Townes that included a chorus which had him tapping his heart between strums. Something about TVZ's daughter saying to her mother 'daddy is fighting with his heart,' when Van Zandt was suffering the heart attack that killed him. Unfortunately, it came off sort of creepy. Or maybe it was Dan's sartorially resplendent sweat pants he's been wearing since the 1980s which he no doubt would've worn to Townes' funeral if he'd been invited. An inauspicious beginning. Two things I couldn't help but notice early on, both offstage: one, the CBE crowd is the most huggin'est crowd I've ever seen. Hug, hug, hug. Uh, great. Hugs for Jesus, hugs for NPR, hugs for Mike Taylor, I say; the other was the second main speaker wasn't working for the longest time and I had to listen to a couple of aging yuppie types talk about their real estate acquisitions in otherwise poor areas for a song and city-guaranteed loans. They didn't look like urban inner-city types needing shelter. They sounded like to two wolves who knew a good deal when they heard one and pounced accordingly. Ah, liberals. I wonder what Townes would've thought? But the hustling Nassau fixed it and hustled performers on and off with the precision, if not the tender mercies, of the late Bill Graham. Clearly the hardest working man there at Dick's that night, I'll give the dude his due: an obvious labor of love. He got a lot of hugs. Deservedly. Eric Ahlteen scored doing T's "Blaze's Blues" and "German Mustard" with some of the hardest of TVZ's lines: My baby come/come nice and slow wear a good man out/like a son of a bitch then they turn around/and smile at you, babe like they don't know you Mitt Romney didn't write those lyrics. Townes, like Shakespeare, Leonard Cohen and Mickey Spillane, was keenly aware of the war between the sexes. War on Women? Hell, the other one started in the Garden of Even ten minutes after the apple fell. Every fool knows that. Even me. Ahlteen got some nice chugga-chugga going on his guitar, too. Which brings me to the importance of the occasional rhythm in the otherwise rather rhythmically droll singer-songwriter genre of drone. Performer Lauren Leven, after doing two fine Townes songs, "St John the Gambler" and "Black Crow Blues" but a little too quietly probably because she was too far from the mic--rookie error--really got the place going with a whipped up groove of a traditional non-TVZ folk classic, “The Coo Coo.” She transformed the place kick-ass style. Really nice. Next time I hope the speaker's working, too. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. Step into Dick's Den and you step into real life. Deal with it. Hug someone. The Miller-Kelton band whomped a brace of Z songs which included his greatest blues line, "I gotta brand new companion, man, I'm gonna do my best this time." One got the impression Townes' personal life was what happened between chugs. It was one of the hardest-hitting blues I've ever heard live, with a terrific vocal thanks to the gal beltin' out like Bessie Smith gettin' hosed by Janis Joplin but with a helluva lot more on-pitch class. Now, I don't know who Craig James is, but in doing "Kathleen" and "Snowin On Raton" he looked and sounded like Popeye the Sailor Man except not as good. Now, I don't know how he speaks in public or private. But he sang with a sandpaper grunt. Thus, actually, not as good as Popeye, who it must be remembered, did end up with Olive Oil. At this point Dick's was as crowded as Altamont. Everyone was forced to group hug. Real estate tips were exchanged. The sound was finally fixed. Nassau was working harder than my cousin at his east Cleveland Slovenian polka wedding. Keepin' that Polish fried chicken coming and the polka-maniacs supplied with beer is the equivalent of a TVZ tribute night at Dick's Den's Hugger Convention. Adam Smith was one of my night's favorites, doing a trio of genius: “When He Offers His Hand,” “Turnstyled/Junkpiled,” and “Don't You Take It Too Bad.” Just got up there and did 'em, like he was born to. Hey, some people got it and some people teach English in foreign countries. God is a stingy sonuvagun when it comes to talent. And then there was Brian Griffith, whose protest songs I have protested. The man is simply a born picket-line provocateur. Fine. But when it comes to putting his politics to a tune, look out. Talk about the progressives' war on music, this man is a true musical war criminal. But that's his original stuff. Fine. How-some-ever, when it came to him doing TVZ's stuff, of which he did four (three-and-a-half too many), and he did it in his inimitable, God-for-saken, completely talentless-but-well-intentioned way, I came to the conclusion he should do what Phil Ochs did when his career floundered: donned a skin-tight gold lame outfit and cheesed out on a hokey rock 'n' roll revival a la Sha Na Na. And I say this with all the Buddhist loving kindness I can muster because I hate to see self-delusion piled on top of self-delusion. Of this I think Townes, gazing down from on high, and I are in complete agreement. There was plenty more good shit, there was, including Andy Gallagher and Jack Parker (damn good) and even more after that. This Towney was towned out by midnight and headed home, loads of lyrics buzzing around his head like Mark Twain-isms. I thank the performers and the promoters and the bar and The Man himself.

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