Jackson Browne's rare US tour with David Lindley -- the all-things-stringed maestro who, as much as anyone, defined the sound of Browne's astonishing run of records in the '70s -- found the sextaganarians at the Fox Theatre on one of the haziest and sweatiest of nights during this St. Louis Summer From Hell. As the 2 hour and 40 minute split set drew to a close, "Rock Me on the Water," and the lines "I'll get back to the sea, somehow," sounded as utopian and as unlikely as ever.
More likely was the first cry of "Take off your shirt, baby!" from a fan who would (likely) later be doing the Elaine Dance in the aisle. "Polyester is a commitment," Browne joked, but at least no one yelled for him to strip the bell bottoms. Starting just after 7:30 p.m., he and Lindley took the stage, sat down, and opened with two stunning songs written by friends: "Seminole Bingo" by Warren Zevon and "Brothers Under the Bridge" by Bruce Springsteen. Lindley -- sporting monster mutton chops and a Rorschach-test shirt given to him by a fan before the show -- sang lead on both, his voice pointy and reedy, but well-matched with Browne, who, despite having dropped half an octave in the sweet spot, remains an excellent harmony singer. And Lindley's guitar (and bouzouki and fiddle and lap steel) playing? No one sounds like him, not even himself circa 1976, for in the brilliant acoustics of the Fox -- the mix, from my VIP seat, slayed on the acoustic set, although it perhaps wavered in the vocals on the later electric set -- he tested and pushed and played with riffs and tunings like a surrealist, but always soulful.
The two continued the intimate exchange with "For Everyman" and the under-appreciated "Looking East," making the set up as they went, with Browne honoring a request for "Our Lady of the Well," which Lindley claimed not to remember. "That's one of the benefits of never having learned it in the first place," Browne added. The disclaimer was unnecessary, as Lindley gave the break the best improvised solo of the night. Browne left Lindley to his own devices - "It's the music, not the words," Lindley said, impersonating Jimmy Stewart - and then attacked two more covers, "Soul of a Man" (taking a cue from Bruce Cockburn's version of the blues standard) and then, of all things, "Copperhead Road," by Steve Earle, thrashed out on a fat, pear-shaped oud.
The opening acoustic set lasted 40 minutes, and, with its surprising and wonderful covers and intense and spontaneous interplay, seemed to presage a remarkable night. Only when Browne returned with his full band - organ, electric guitar, back up singers, bass and drums behind plexiglass baffles - Lindley remained off-stage, and the singer seemed lost, frozen almost, as if his ill-advised plastic surgery had consumed his entire body. His mouth moved around the first full-band song, "Off of Wonderland," but nothing else did. The three tunes that followed - "Giving That Heaven Away," "Just Say Yeah" and "Shape of Heart" - served to remind that Browne isn't just a poet of youth's promise, but a fucking good pop songwriter. Still, only "Shape of a Heart" stuck, his voice cracking beautifully on the refrain, and then cracking again on the line "fast as they can ride," on "Your Bright Baby Blues," played, finally, with some semblance of consciousness on the keys. Lindley had now returned, which seemed to make all the difference to the band and to the singer. When the background gals came in like a choir, "Close your eyes," and Browne responded, "Try a few of these," it wasn't just a nostalgic dope reference. He seemed really to be trying again.