Singer, songwriter, and guitar playing political agitant Steve Earle once famously said, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”
It’s a big statement, but Van Zandt was a big talent.
On Tuesday, a few of Centre’s County’s most notable musicians will get together to celebrate Van Zandt's music at The State Theater at an event called "For the Sake of the Song: Celebrating the Music of Townes Van Zandt." The idea started years ago by semi-local music ace Jason McIntyre, along with his friends and Little Townes collaborators Natalie Race and Cory Neidig, as well as Millheim musician Erin Condo.
“A few of us have been talking about doing this show for a long time,” McIntyre said. “There are concerts around the country that celebrate Townes' death on New Year's Day, but I wanted to organize a show celebrating his birthday, March 7th. I wasn’t able to get back in March so here we are making the show happen in April.”
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Van Zandt is a musician’s musician, a songwriter’s songwriter. While leading a life plagued by addiction and mental illness, he transformed his anguish into his music, thus blessing his listeners in a way that nurtures and inspires their inner-journeying, as they wade through their shadows, if they’re not too afraid to swim.
“His work was often covered and made popular by big name artists,” Race said. “He is more often described as a poet, not a singer-songwriter, and when you hear his lyrics, it is truly poetry. The melodies and song structures were simple which allowed the lyrics to be highlighted. His battle with mental illness and substance abuse made him real and his words touched the deepest, darkest corners of the human existence.”
Indeed, for Race, Van Zandt touches such a deep, personal chord that to perform his songs has always been an important aspect of her artistry.
“Jason and I started a band called Little Townes,” Race said, “along with Cory Neidig, John Kennedy, Jamie Davis, Dan Collins and Adam Laird. That band will most likely always rate number one as the best and most fun group of musicians I've ever played with — and it was all based on our love of Townes Van Zandt. I appreciate the pain he writes about. While singing his songs, I am given a space to feel these emotions without judgment.”
Race’s sentiments are echoed by Condo, who sees "For the Sake of the Song" as a way to honor Van Zandt, but also as a way to honor music-making in general, and to bring the community together through the arts.
“I've come to realize how important it is to play and share music with others,” Condo said. “It's the perfect starting point for shared experience and conversation. I'm honored to be included in an evening such as this, surrounded by some of the best musicians and songwriters in the area. Paying tribute to someone like Townes Van Zandt is a truly humbling experience.”
My recommendation: get yourself out Tuesday and check out this awesome show. Whether it’s Condo vibing and swinging her way through the songs, McIntyre’s easy and engaging delivery, the innate beauty of Race’s singing or Neidig’s subliminal banjo picking, it’s going to be a night full of inspiration, music-making, and, of course, love.
“I love doing shows in the Attic of The State Theatre,” McIntyre said. “It’s an intimate venue where you can tell some stories, interact with the crowd and play meaningful songs to a listening audience. That is what a Townes show was like, so it’s cool to pay homage in a similar environment.”
If you go
What: "For the Sake of the Song: Celebrating the Music of Townes Van Zandt"
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: The Attic at The State Theatre, 130 W. College Ave., State College
Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail.com.