It’s been awhile since I headed to a formal, sit down auditorium to catch a concert. Some of that reluctance stems from an opinion that rock and roll is participatory; you dance you don’t sit. Some is a deliberate attempt to avoid being sucked into what feels like “Dad Rock”. Or a rehash of tunes that gave a particular band some level of prior notoriety. Usually, these type of shows require some kind of suspension of reality in order to see past the burgeoning belt lines, fully receded hair lines, wrinkles and manufactured passion required to perform the same song for the 10,000th time.
I first saw Jackson Browne in 1977 on The Pretender tour and remember it fondly. The lyrics to the songs that came from those 70’s halcyon days still come easy to anybody who came of age during that period. So I was a bit anxious sitting down in the State Theater. Would I be swept up in the show? Or would I walk away disappointed having borne witness to an icon diminished?
My initial impression of the audience was that it was all cut from the same cloth; 60ish, clean cut and with spouse or significant other in tow. Date night. This wasn’t an old hippy gathering. It was a mature convention clad in slightly stretched vintage Late For The Sky t-shirts and polos. They were in their seats waiting until Browne and band took to the stage precisely on time at 7:30. At this point they rose as one and poured appreciation on their beloved Hall of Fame songwriter and his 7 piece band. Worry number one dispelled. This audience was there to engage.
The band opened with Some Bridges which immediately gave notice that there would be a political aspect to the performance. That wasn’t unexpected. Browne’s career as an activist is well known. Thankfully, throughout the evening he opted to let his music make his points rather than pontificate from the stage.
A feature spotlight was immediately placed on the remarkable Greg Leisz who contributed on lap steel, pedal steel, slide, acoustic and electric guitars throughout the evening. It would be hard to find an artist who has been featured on more albums and tours than Leisz. He’s truly one of a kind. That opening solo on Bridges hearkened back to a young David Lindley who co-wrote and accompanied Browne through so many tours. My notes say “this sounds just like JB is meant to sound.”
On the heels of a slightly obscure opener, which nonetheless generated a raucous response, Browne took his time and made it clear that he was in a particularly good mood. He had collected many positive memories of this particular venue. He asked the audience if they might remember this one and launched into She Loves The Thunder from Running On Empty. The band was getting warmed up and with songs like this they were preaching to the choir.
Speaking of choirs, one of the things that Jackson Browne has always managed to do is provide exceptional vocal performances both in the studio and in concert. People can debate all they want about how good he is as a vocalist. The fact is, by himself he is not special. That’s not meant as a slight. He exploded onto the scene at a time when the airwaves were dominated by folk cross-over artists who made their livings by being distinctive, recognizable and by penning exceptional lyrics. While his voice is warm and inviting it is far from dynamic. That’s easily overcome due to the quality of the back up singers in his band. In this case, he was working with Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart; a lovely tandem he had first met as high-schoolers singing in a gospel choir he employed on a recording project.
In a case of serendipity, while I was making notes about how good Browne still looked for a 70 year old rocker with millions of miles of pavement under his wheels, the guy sitting beside me remarked that he thought he looked like Warren Zevon. I responded that I was also getting flashes of Tom Petty. Maybe it was the glasses. Maybe it was the hair which steadfastly remained at a fashionable rock and roll length. With the exception of the female vocalists this was a band built of musicians from the same era. They were pro’s pros. They were graceful, awesomely talented and committed to the music.
As featured as Greg Leisz was throughout the evening, lead guitar player Shane Fontayne was just as impressive. Time and again I reflected on how impressed I was with his solos. Browne was often turned stage left, strumming chords, as Leisz and Fontayne reacted to each other and blended tones. While many of the artist’s songs revolve around him sitting at a grand piano, in the grand scheme of things it’s the guitar work that has carried so many of his hits. These two were more than up to the task and a joy to watch.
Often a renowned singer/songwriter, late in his or her career, will hit the road with hired guns. They tend to be extremely talented and a good deal younger than the star. They are there to simply serve the song and to project an image from the stage. It misses something organic. I was so pleased Browne hadn’t gone this route. These were his compatriots and they were by every measurement, a band. At one point during the proceedings, he picked an old song from the ether and challenged them. Afterward, he remarked to the audience how much he enjoyed playing with a band that not only was unphased tackling something they hadn’t played in years but could pull it off with aplomb.
Midway through that opening set Browne introduced the Mexacali feel The Dreamer. Given the current state of our own borders it seemed especially appropriate. He dedicated the song to his Grandmother who came to this country at age 16 from Norway and settled in St Paul. So he knew all the phrases and traditions necessary to endear him to this audience. He joked that his favorite cartoon was one of the Statue of Liberty with the inscription: Give me your Norwegians!
The seamless transition from The Dreamer to his more recent hit Lives in the Balance made his opinions on immigration policies crystal clear. This one featured the back ups and as I glanced around me I actually saw a few people wiping tears from their eyes. The song was beautiful and heartfelt. It reminded me about the power of song. And to many, Jackson Browne remains their prophet. The song brought the entire house to its feet.
When he asked the audience if they were playing the right songs he was rewarded with a loud affirmation. People began shouting out requests. He looked out into the crowd in the direction of a particular request and asked: “So you want us to play a Warren Zevon song?” The band picked the beautiful, desperate Zevon ballad Carmelita. “Carmelita hold me a little tighter. I think I’m sinking’ down. And I’m all strung out on heroin. On the outside of town…”. While the song went over just fine I must say it was my favorite of the evening. It’s a Jackson Browne type song. But it cuts a bit closer to the bone than he’s willing to do with his own songs. Late in the show he once again played the Zevon card with the rocker Lawyers, Guns and Money.
After precisely an hour on stage he announced a short intermission and told everyone when they’d be back. I didn’t leave my seat for long because I knew if JB was anything he was deliberate and accountable. He had a schedule in mind and he’d stick to it. The band was back, as promised, to the minute.
The second set was much the same as the first. Paced intelligently and in a manner befitting an artist who had nothing to prove; who was simply there to share his music. Slowly but surely the band began to mix in more of the classic hits from the mid ’70’s which were what the people were there to re-live. I was struck by the number of people who had their phones up to capture video or snap photos. I got a kick out of watching couples turning their backs to the stage long enough to snap selfies with Jackson Browne in the background. I couldn’t help thinking that these pictures were destined to be attached to text messages sent to old college roommates. Proving that the taker was, in fact, still cool and rocking.
What became a bit irritating was the conduct of the State Theater ushers. There is no question that looking up at someone else’s phone as they film is bothersome. And there is no question that the ushers were under instruction to keep those distractions to a minimum. But as they patrolled the aisles like nuns with rulers taking down rule breakers, it was far more distracting than the phones. Sometimes there are good ideas but executing them opens up an entirely new can of worms.
My primary impression of the second set was how willing Browne is to share his stage. Jeff Young on keys and B3 picked up solos while continuing to add rich backing vocals. While never featured directly, the rhythm section of Bob Glaub on bass and Mauricio Lewak on drums was a constant, clean presence. Midway through the set Greg Leisz’ young wife was invited to the stage. They had met a few years back when Greg and Jackson ran across her busking on a Swedish street corner. She played a beautiful song which featured her laying down some wonderful vibrato lines reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. Every time a band member was allowed room to roam, Browne would listen, enjoy and beam like a proud papa.
As the set neared its end he politely asked a hulking security guard who was doing his best to get audience members to sit down “if he’d care to take a seat.” He chuckled a bit and intoned it was time to relax the standing rules in the auditorium. Just what the doctor ordered. People took to their feet to dance and sway. The timing was right because the show concluded with known favorites Shape of a Heart and Running On Empty.
The band’s exit and quick return to the stage was appreciated. It wasn’t as though the gang had worked up a sweat and needed to towel down. And he seemed to understand that his audience was out past their bed times and had management jobs to get to the next morning. The encore opened with the Eagles hit Take It Easy, a tune many don’t know he co-wrote with the late Glenn Frey. Somehow it all seemed appropriate. People were in the aisles and dancing. Every kid who picked up a guitar in the early ’70’s and learned C, D and G cowboy chords cut his teeth on Take It Easy. Every voice in the auditorium sang back lyrics burned forever into their brains.
Well, I’m standin’ on a corner
in Winslow, Arizona
And such a fine sight to see.
It’s a girl, my lord,
in a flatbed ford
Slowin’ down to take
a look at me.
As I watched the appreciative audience make their way to the exits I smiled at the number of yawns, held hands and satisfied faces. For two and a half hours Jackson Browne transported these people back to years past, so fondly remembered. He’s still relevant and he’s still creating music, albeit not of the stature of those early years. He embodies the grace and conscience of the best of American citizens. And his performance made it clear that he’s no museum piece or Dad Rocker. He’s anything but a Pretender and far from Running On Empty.