Townes Van Zandt writes and sings as if he's relaying messages from some stark landscape littered with the failed archetypes of a shattered American dream--rugged individualism, staunch cowboy nobility, wild outlaw nonconformity, and endless highways promising freedom and deliverance. His heroes, fallen believers searching for the souls they sold for those visions, include aging outlaws down on their luck (Van Zandt penned the lovely Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard hit, "Pancho & Lefty"); doomed rodeo cowboys and hard-drinking rodeo clowns; brokenhearted lovers languishing in cheap hotels; even the occasional young visitor from the decay-haunted, late-20th-century urban night (as in his eloquent reading of Springsteen's "Racing in the Street"). Van Zandt's music--country-folk acoustic guitar backing his subdued Texas drawl--is as spare and melancholy as the world he evokes in his songs. Yet, like Leonard Cohen, Van Zandt delivers his tales with deep-hearted warmth and compassion so we're emboldened, not discouraged, by the darkness of his vision. Friday, Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont; 561-7561 or 281-4444.