These two albums of vintage recordings from late Americana legends, both double disc CD sets with impressive liner notes, certainly serve a purpose as more and more live gigs and radio sessions from the past make it into the public domain. The question is, “Do they deserve to appear and is it worth forking out for them?” Well, in the case of Townes Van Zandt here, the answer is definitely yes. As for the Sahm set, it’s a bit more woolly.
Down Home & Abroad consists of two live shows recorded in 1985 (at The Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee) and 1993 (in Helsinki). In both shows Townes is in fine fettle, relaxed and chatty as he rambles through his stellar catalogue of songs, most of the classics are here with only four duplications across the discs. On the Tennessee set he is accompanied by guitarist Mickey White and flautist/saxophonist Donny Silverman, the latter’s contributions reminding one of the early Van Zandt studio albums. His talking blues on Talking Thunderbird Blues and Fraternity Blues both raise some hoots from the audience and some of his introductions raise a chuckle but when he delves into a song such as Rake, you know this is a guy who has faced darkness in his soul. The accompanying players give Snake Mountain Blues an additional heft and there’s a neat combination of Colorado Girl and Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues which is just outstanding. By 1993 Townes is much more weathered, his voice more stained but still capable of dredging up deep emotions. Here he’s solo and his guitar is just a bit more ragged but again he has those great songs to back him up. He sounds tentative at first on this first visit to Finland but as the show progresses he relaxes, his chats loosen up and by the end of the show (which, going by his repeated assurances to the crowd that the main act will be on soon, goes on longer than planned) he’s flying, playing audience requests and goofing around as when he kicks off Brother Flower saying, “If I start humming it’s because I’ve forgotten the words.” A raw rendition of Flying Shoes and a halting Don’t you Take It Too Bad (and here you can compare the performance to that of eight years earlier) close the show. With both shows well recorded (aside from some minor tape hiss on the Helsinki show) this release is bound to attract devotees of Townes Van Zandt and for more fair weather listeners is not too shabby a way to hear what all the fuss is about when it comes to the peculiar genius of Townes Van Zandt.
Texas Radio & The Big Beat (aside from the title the discs have no relationship with The Doors) consists of two shows recorded for radio transmission in 1973 and 1974, in Philadelphia and then in Houston. Recorded in the wake of Sahm’s Atlantic album, Doug Sahm and Band, which had the likes of Dylan and Dr. John sitting in, the shows don’t reflect that disc with only two songs, Papa Ain’t Salty and (Is Anybody Going To) San Antone represented. Instead, Sahm and the bands behind him offer some of his older hits such as She’s About A Mover and At The Crossroads along with numerous covers of blues and country standards. It has to be said that both recordings are thin, the band muffled for the most part with instrumental solos either too loud or lost in the mix. Sahm himself is fiery and passionate, having fun but with his vocal track way up high on most of the songs. The Philadelphia recording wins out in terms of its variety and Sahm’s between song chat but on both shows the majority of the songs are blues shuffles with little of the variety that was on show on that Atlantic Records studio album. That said the versions of (Is Anyone Going To) San Antone and Wolverton Mountain, both from the Philly gig, are pretty cool but it’s difficult to recommend this to anyone but die hard collectors.