It’s easy to take Jackson Browne for granted; that’s one of the drawbacks of being so good for so long. He’s been in the business for over 50 years and it feels like he has always been a part of the musical tapestry. He wrote the striking “These Days” (covered by Nico on her first album, Chelsea Girl) at 16. He became a star in his 20s and managed to squeeze in recording the classic Running on Emptyand producing Warren Zevon’s masterpiece Excitable Boybefore he turned 30. If he’d stopped there he’d already be a legend. Consider for a second that in October Jackson Browne will turn 70; the mind boggles.
His literate and melodic gifts have been a constant presence in his work, from his early days working with Nico and Tim Buckley to his mid-period rock star success to his latter day more personal and politically active material. In 2004, he was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by his contemporary, Bruce Springsteen who cited Browne’s songwriting and lyrical economy as influences. So, yeah, it’s easy to take his songwriting, musical skills and voice as a given. Great artists make it look and sound easy.
His voice has threaded in and out of the decades and still personifies the burnished warm glow of So Cal in the ‘70s. As a kid, I remember it coming out of the soft crackle of poolside radios. As a teen, it was tempered by the hum and soft hiss of cassette decks. As a young adult, it came through pristine and crystalline on CD. In the new millennium it’s more likely to come streaming through earbuds somewhere on the road when I’m weary and burning to get back home. Last night, I finally got to experience it live. And nothing beats live.
Browne promptly took the stage at starting time as people were still filing in. He strummed his acoustic guitar as his seven-piece band (drums, bass, guitar, lap steel, organ and two female backup singers) took their places and launched into a soulful version of “Some Bridges”. The combination of organ and the lovely backing vocals made it almost feel like church as the band locked into an easy groove.
The program was split into two sets. Throughout the first set, Browne changed guitars on every song, trading out acoustic and electric guitars to fit the mood of the songs. The selection was pulled from his vast catalog both old (“You Love the Thunder” from Running on Empty, “For a Dancer” from Late for the Sky) and new (“The Long Way Around” from Standing in the Breachand the 2017 single “The Dreamer”).
Everything meshed beautifully; the band was fluid and found the shape of each song. The beauty of pulling together a decades-long catalog with a live band is that the sound becomes more uniform; 80s-eras songs can live comfortably next to stripped down 70s songs without sounding jarring.
As good as the instrumentalists were, the secret weapon in tying the material together turned out to be the backup singers. Browne gave them plenty of air time on the Latin-flavored song “The Dreamer”. He commented that when they performed the song in California in front of native Spanish speakers, the crowd was surprised to see two African American women from South Central LA singing the lyrics in perfect Spanish.
Even more surprising was the singers’ turn on “Lives in the Balance”. Browne commented that they loved the song so much that, to his delight, they wrote another verse. As Browne plucked out the stark, acoustic chords and sang, the singers joined in. At first, they complemented his singing, then they took over the verses and ratcheted up the intensity until it echoed Merry Clayton’s riveting turn on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”.
After that emotional high, Browne took a seat at his piano to perform a beautiful, longing version of “Sky Blue and Black” followed by the rollicking “Doctor My Eyes”. His joy was evident as he flashed a huge grin as guitarist Shane Fontayne soloed brilliantly.
The first set closed with “For Everyman,” a song that started slowly on acoustic guitar and ended up as a full-on arena-sized rocker.
After a short break, the sun was down, lending a more intimate, club-like atmosphere. The stage lights were more dramatic and the band wasted no time cranking things up a notch with the crunchy swagger of “Looking East.” If the first half was introspective, the second half clearly aimed both to rock and to please. Highlights included a stomping version of Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money”, the roadhouse wrecking ball, “Red Neck Friend,” a moving, elegant version of “The Pretender” (with Browne on piano), and a crowd-pleasing “Somebody’s Baby.”
Browne seemed to be having fun; whether it was pausing to ask for an emergency emery board so he could file his nails so that they wouldn’t screw up his guitar playing or joking that with all the shouted song requests, “Some of my shows sound like auctions.”
As the evening wound down, Browne thanked the crowd and started strumming the intro to “Running on Empty.” He smiled, turned to the band and kicked the song into full gear. As many times as I’ve heard this song, the frisson of hearing the chords kick in and join the lap steel and keys was incredible. The band tore through the song, taking their turns at soloing or slashing at the edges. It was wonderful, but over too soon. The show can’t go on forever.
The crowd cheered for more and the band came back on to encore with a version of “Take it Easy” that slid seamlessly into “Our Lady of the Well.” Browne waved warmly and called it a night.
When I was a kid and heard the lines, “Looking back at the years going by like so many summer fields” it was just another lyric; heck, “In ‘65/I was 17” doesn’t mean much when you weren’t even born yet. As I got older, that lyric stayed a static point, even as I put a lot more of the world under my own wheels. It gained more relevance as I hit 17, then 21, then beyond.
Staying in motion is one way to avoid dealing with things, but you can only run so long. It takes passion, strength and skill to forge your way from nervous teen to pretender to hold out to rock star and to keep a hold on the wheel for five decades.
At this stage, it would seem Jackson Browne doesn’t have much to prove. But still, he hits the road, at least for now. Don’t take it for granted that will always be the case.