By Jack of Hearts
Photos by Jay Douglass
June 25, 2018
Jackson Browne’s songwriting has followed his singular rhythms and interests throughout his long career, and they all were on display on the first full day of Summer Friday night in Lincoln at Pinewood Bowl.
While I admire Browne most for his way with words in the songs that explore our emotional landscapes, I respect the social consciousness that marks his later songs that expose the political climate of our country. The philosophical and romantic themes that I first encountered as the 1970s gave way to the 80s were put into play with the socio-political concerns that he has taken up in the years following his commercial heyday, all of which went over well with those of us in attendance at the venue.
For a singer-songwriter who has mapped our inner weathers so deftly over the years, including the fears, frailties, and longings that can cloud our lives (as typified by a song such as “Sky Blue and Black,” say) Browne’s songs dispersed the overcast skies that have colored Nebraska lately, ironically enough, making for a welcome break from the rain (and heat) that we have been experiencing, much as if he were a pop Orpheus, charming earth and sky with his songs and showmanship.
As a singer-songwriter who has toured frequently throughout his career, it would be easy to think of Browne as forever living the life chronicled in the song “Running on Empty” and the album of the same name. But many of his songs exist as touchstones for us to brood upon our own lives as much as they are chronicles of his life.
In 1980 I was 19 when I first saw him in concert, and I considered him a California version of John Lennon because of the introspective bent that their songwriting shared (which to my teenage mind dovetailed nicely with the fact that they both shared October 9 as a birthday). That concert, at the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana, featured songs from the hip Running on Empty and the slicker Hold Out, interspersed with favorites from his earlier 70s albums, all of which showcased Browne as an accomplished singer-songwriter while only in his early 30s, equally given to introspection and observation in his ability to trace the shape of the heart as well as the contours of life on the road.
I was in awe of him and his talent, especially in the way he could gaze inward and outward, and I appreciated the way he could connect with an audience; I still recall fondly how Browne substituted “champagne” for “cocaine” while singing “Cocaine,” in a witty nod to the latest stop on his tour. Guitarist David Lindley and singer Rosemary Butler complemented Browne’s performance with their instrumental and vocal turns, respectively, making for a memorable evening of singing and playing. The interplay of the band at that concert left a lasting impression upon me; it pointed up how crucial players are in helping a singer-songwriter parley his or her musical vision.
Fast forward to 2018, I’m 56 when I see him in concert again and while I’m less awestruck by idols, it feels like I’m meeting up with an old friend with whom I’ve lost touch, and we take up where we left off as he inspires me to think about where I’ve been, where I’m at, and where I’m going.
Right before he walked onstage I glimpsed him stage right; his brown hair was streaked with grey yet the boyish good looks remained as he walked out and greeted us warmly (“Lincoln!”) then opened with “Some Bridges” from Looking East in an immediate effort to connect with us, singing “Every day I walk out in this torn up world/And I fight to survive…/Carrying your smile with me,” making the political personal.
From there, Browne effortlessly mixed similar songs (such as “The Long Way Around” and “The Dreamer” early on and “Looking East” later) with more polemical tunes such as “Lives in the Balance” and his reggae-inflected cover of Little Steven’s “I Am a Patriot.”
That said, he devoted much of the night to revisiting the songs for which he first became known, drawing liberally from his first five albums, especially For Everyman and Running on Empty as well as Jackson Browne, Late for the Sky, and The Pretender. While his voice was a little worse for wear and tear, touring as much as he does, I liked hearing “These Days,” “Your Bright Baby Blues,” “You Love the Thunder,” “Rosie,” and the previously-mentioned “Running on Empty” quite a bit, all of which showcase that seeking, searching spirit of Browne’s with which I identify so. Inquisitiveness, it seems to me, has been a hallmark of Browne’s introspective songwriting style.
The easy rapport that Browne established with us also made for an evening in which he was happy to indulge an audience request and share various anecdotes in between songs.
Browne treated us to “Rock Me on the Water” during the second set in response to a request (the song has not figured in previous set lists on this tour) and he joked about the late Warren Zevon prior to covering “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” with remarks to the effect of “the older and more fucked up I get, the truer this song is!” (in wry acknowledgement of what he called the “berserk” yet all too prescient perspective that can inform Zevon’s songs).
While the encore, a medley of “Take It Easy/Our Lady of the Well” was sweet in its shout out to the late Glen Frey, Browne graced us with a second encore by medleying “The Load-Out/Stay,” to which he has treated few audiences on this tour. I found such touches flattering — Browne did remark more than once about his pleasure in playing the venue — as well as a testament to his well-rehearsed touring band, comprising Shane Fontayne (guitar), Bob Glaub (bass), Greg Leisz (guitar, lap steel, pedal steel), Mauricio Lewak (drums), Alethea Mills (vocals), Chavonne Stewart (vocals), and Jeff Young (keyboards). Browne gave his bandmates several opportunities to shine over the course of the evening and allowed Fontayne and Leisz, in particular, plenty of blowing room on several songs. The audience was on its feet at several points during the evening, singing, swaying, and/or clapping to the beat.
Browne and band played for almost three hours under skies blue and black. It was nice to catch up with him after all these years and find how willing he continues to be to speak his mind and sing his heart while trying to believe.
Jack of Hearts hosts “Sound & Vision” on KZUM every Wednesday from 6 to 8 a.m. Jay Douglass is a photography contributor for KZUM.