“I think I’m going stark, raving mad,” announced Townes Van Zandt by way of opening his portion of a double bill with old friend Guy Clark at Ann Arbor’s venerable folk music club.
Anyone familiar with Van Zandt knows the demons that have haunted him for decades are never far from the surface — particularly when he’s onstage. But his 45-minute set before a sold-out audience was an unmitigated disaster, even by his standards. Watching this show was like seeing someone have a complete mental breakdown. Like a train wreck, it was tragic yet impossible to look away. Shaky to the point of teetering on his stool, Van Zandt started his set with “Loretta”, which was rendered incomprehensible by Van Zandt’s mixed-up verses and forgotten lines.
The set really disintegrated during abortive versions of the Stones’ “Dead Flowers”; “Katie Belle Blue”, an original tune for his young daughter; and Lightinin’ Hopkins’ “My Starter Won’t Start”. By the time he got to “Pancho and Lefty” midway through the set, Van Zandt was so lost that the song crumbled into fragmented verses that caused it to lose all its impact. Two-thirds of the way through, he quit playing the guitar and tried to recite the rest of the song before wiping tears from his eyes at its conclusion.
A spoken-word reading of a song-in-progress, “Sanitarium Blues,” offered some insights into Van Zandt’s mental state. The song tells a harrowing tale of commitment to a mental hospital and was meant to be funny, he said. It wasn’t. It was tragic, as was Van Zandt, who appeared to be plagued more by melancholy than by drink.
Van Zandt had to stop “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” mid-song in a failed effort to collect himself after yet another botched verse. Surprisingly, he pulled himself together enough to conclude his set — after he’d already unplugged his guitar — with a stunning version of “Marie”, the stark tale of a homeless couple that perhaps added more clues to Townes’ emotional state. The set ended with Van Zandt sitting on the edge of the stage, head in hands, sobbing.
Guy Clark, flanked by his son, Travis, on acoustic six-string bass, lightened the mood considerably with a 75-minute set that was highlighted by the playful, harmonic interplay between father and son. The set kicked off with “Baton Rouge” before threading through a sampling of Clark’s 20-year recording career. Standout moments included “Homegrown Tomatoes”, “Desperados Waiting for a Train”, and “Baby Took A Limo To Memphis”, as well as standbys such as “Let Him Roll”, “L.A. Freeway” and “Coat from the Cold”.
Unfortunately, all of Clark’s upbeat banter and first-rate musicianship wasn’t enough to lift the collective vibe of despair that Van Zandt left behind onstage only an hour before.