LIVE: Rain on a Conga Drum: The Songs of Townes Van Zandt @ Caffe Lena, 3/4/17

Review by Steven Stock

This tribute concert to legendary troubadour Townes Van Zandt was held three days prior to what would have been his 73rd birthday. Sadly, Van Zandt didn’t even make it to age 53, dying of cardiac arrhythmia on January 1, 1997, 44 years to the day after his idol Hank Williams. It doesn’t appear that Townes’ ghost made it to the concert either: the joint didn’t come close to running out of booze, and none of the lovely ladies in attendance ditched their respectable dates to take home a lanky, dark-haired, dashing stranger.

His songs live on, as do a litany of tall tales, plausible stories and unprintable jokes. A contradictory character, Van Zandt could be clinically depressed or irresistibly charming, withdrawing to indulge multiple addictions or stepping out as the life of the party. A near-capacity crowd at the refurbished Caffe Lena was given glimpses of all these facets and more, courtesy of the evening’s host Michael Eck, John & Orion Kribs, Cloud Lifter, The Sea The Sea and Van Zandt biographer John Kruth.

Eck performed a song with each line-up before turning the stage over to them, a device that proved effective in lending some continuity and coherence to the proceedings. Eck and the father-and-son Kribs duo opened with a lovely version of “Tecumseh Valley,” then Kruth on harmonica joined the trio for an ebullient (blue)grassed-up version of “White Freight Liner Blues.” The crowd sang along during the chorus of “Pancho and Lefty” transforming this outlaw country staple into something of a hymnal. The Kribs’ set concluded with “Waitin’ Around to Die” and “None But the Rain.”

Next up was Cloud Lifter, a trio that sounded simply spectacular. After years of listening to Townes’ songs on guitars hearing Chris Carey’s piano arrangements was refreshing and revelatory, while James Gascoyne’s upright bass resounded through Caffe Lena like thunder in a canyon. Though just a trio, Cloud Lifter conjured a majestic grandeur reminiscent of Nick Cave or Tindersticks as they reinvented “Buckskin Stallion,” “Lungs,” “Snow Don’t Fall,” “No Place To Fall” and “Loretta.”

The Sea The Sea are a husband-wife duo who create some of the loveliest harmonies since Gram Parsons nodded off this mortal coil at Joshua Tree, leaving Emmylou Harris and the rest of us behind. “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” was Eck’s most affecting contribution of the evening, and The Sea The Sea followed with sublime renditions of “Don’t Take It Too Bad,” “Nothin’,” “The Rake” and the breathtakingly gorgeous “If I Needed You.”

Townes’ biographer John Kruth closed the set with a mixed bag of readings and performances. His own tune “Nobody’s Safe” was the evening’s only misstep, failing to match the caliber of Van Zandt’s songs, and it was a little disconcerting to see Kruth’s carefully-placed bookmarks fluttering to the stage as he read. Fortunately, he’s a very engaging raconteur, and the liveliness of his readings more than compensated for an occasional loss of momentum. All in all it was a very enjoyable evening filled with lovely new renditions of classic songs.

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