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This collection of live performances by singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt begins with what sounds like the engineer turning on the tape recorder just as the performance begins. It’s a symbolic beginning for a final tribute to the recently deceased tunesmith, because despite his songs being covered by everyone from Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (“Pancho and Lefty”) to the Tindersticks (“Kathleen”), Van Zandt barely hung on to the edge of public consciousness. Most of Van Zandt’s anonymity can be blamed on his rarely touring due to both alcohol and mental problems (when he did tour he often delivered erratic performances that could end with him in tears). Rear View Mirror presents Van Zandt at his finest, though, stripped of the disagreeable arrangements that popped up on his infrequent studio albums. The Texas native is sublimely accompanied by fiddle and another guitar, but the focus is on the stories inside the woeful ballads Van Zandt delivered in his distant and weathered voice. Mixing pop, folk, and country stylings made the songwriter an outsider to each world, and his melancholic lifestyle inspired literate lyrics that were neither banal like most pop, cloying like much folk, nor stupid like modern country. “My lover comes to me with a rose on her bosom/And the moon’s dancing purple all through her black hair,” sings Van Zandt on “Our Mother the Mountain,” which sounds like a rural version of one of Leonard Cohen’s minor-key elegies. “If I Needed You” (famously covered by Emmylou Harris) features broken-hearted finger-picking on the verses and a depressively descending melody-line chorus. On “To Live is to Fly,” Van Zandt sings, “It’s time to leave again/But here’s to all the poetry and the pickin’ down the line.” Later, however, the song sounds more like an epitaph: “Living’s mostly wastin’ time/And I waste my share of mine.” But Rear View Mirror is hardly a waste.Christopher Porter