When navigating the winding hallways that take you to the aptly named Boo’s Hideaway, it’s tempting to bellow “Hello, Cleveland!” and ask a custodian for directions. From its tucked-away digs in the bottom corner of a large building that also houses a bowling alley and several other entertainment options, Boo’s has hosted Buck Owens and Merle Haggard tributes during its inaugural year.
Another tribute night took place October 21, celebrating the songs of the late Townes Van Zandt — but there was also a worthy cause attached. All of the proceeds from the show went to Townes’ younger son Will, who, while working at his first job, had recently been injured in a truck accident, leaving him with a broken pelvis and a yearlong recovery period. (The money was to be used to buy paints for Will, a budding artist, to help provide him with a creative outlet during his recovery.)
A cross-section of musicians from the Triangle area’s roots community took turns playing Townes tunes as well as occasional originals. Chris Smith, who’s been impressing folks as both a solo performer and as the frontman for the hard-rocking Patty Hurst Shifter, tackled three Van Zandt compositions: “At My Window”, “Loretta”, and “White Freightliner Blues”. Smith revealed a clear voice that catches at just the right times, as well as a casual, grinning charm which turned the random forgotten line into a bonding experience with the crowd. His vocals also proved lonely and haunting enough to sell a line such as “My father died of black lung poisoning and passed the helmet on to me,” from one of his own songs.
Kenny Roby, a huge Townes fan (just check out the homage “Sailor’s Request” on the Black River Sides album), got help from Two Dollar Pistols guitarist Scott McCall on his first two offerings, “Pubelo Waltz” and “You Are Not Needed Now”. After telling the story of Townes’ father agreeing that his son could have a guitar as long as he learned to play “Fraulein”, Roby offered a lovely version of the song and followed it with an equally compelling take on “Snow Don’t Fall”, hushing an occasionally chatty room with both.
Next was Chip Robinson, whose recently announced “retirement” seems to come and go like bursitis, but no one’s complaining. In honor of his formative years in Greensboro, North Carolina, Robinson started with “Greensboro Woman”, in the process looking downright professorial peering over his head-schoolmaster glasses. However, there’s no disguising that leathery, emotion-soaked voice, which Robinson showcased while commandeering “Pancho & Lefty” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing In The Streets” (a song Van Zandt covered on his Roadsongs disc).
Talented new guardsman Thad Cockrell began with the confession, “I can’t remember the words to my own songs, let alone someone else’s.” He then backed it up by referring to a cheat sheet taped to the top of his guitar as he sang “If I Needed You”, but the crowd only cared about his warm, pure-country voice and amiable delivery.
Veterans Lynn Blakey (one-third of Las Tres Chicas) and John Chumbris have recently recast their ace pop band Glory Fountain as a moody duo, and their four-song, all-Townes set speculated what it might have sounded like had Richard & Linda Thompson taken a crack at the Van Zandt songbook. Blakey’s vocals shimmered on “Flyin’ Shoes” and “Tower Song”, and when the twosome polished up “Tecumseh Valley” just a bit and smoothed a rough edge or two, they demonstrated how a great song can be great in many different ways.
Yet it was the night’s bookends that perhaps best characterized the spirit of the gathering, a pair of hard-working but lesser-known singer-songwriters named Anthony Neff and Kurt Fortmeyer. Neff, the organizer and emcee of the event, did a nice job with “Nothin’” and “Buckskin Stallion Blues” after speaking eloquently about the legacy of Van Zandt’s songs and how they continue to inspire other songwriters to carry on the craft. And Fortmeyer capped the night with a spirited “Two Hands” that had those left in the club clapping and singing along. The inspired had become the inspirer.