Jackson Browne’s return to the Fabulous Fox Theatre last night was a mostly understated affair, marked by the gentle nuances in his songbook rather than rock & roll flash and bravado. This should come as no surprise to those with even a passing familiarity with his work, but even with a six-piece backing band (including two back-up singers), Browne let his songs speak for themselves.
Maybe this is why the show was lackluster at some points. Browne has never been the master of the three-minute pop song; even his best-known hits tend to linger verse after verse, and his melodic hooks stick in your head due to repetition instead of the strength of the riff itself.
Still, it’s hard to imagine a less likely rock star than Jackson Browne. Taking the stage with a simple wave, the 60 year old singer strapped on an electric guitar and began with “Boulevard,” one of several deeper cuts that were included early in the set (both “Barricades of Heaven” and the lovely “Fountain of Sorrow” came at the show’s start). Sadly, Browne has shaved off the gray goatee that he sports on his new record cover, which made him look like a less-insane Dennis Hopper. His wave of brown hair still swoops to one side, and he looks and sounds incredibly well preserved as he continues through his fourth decade in pop music.
Browne and his band are touring in support of this year’s Time the Conqueror, and they played over half of that album’s content. Of the new songs, “Live Nude Cabaret” was the most arresting, but, true to form, his recent material follows much of the same mellow, even-keeled construction of his back catalogue. “Off Of Wonderland” was a paean to his days in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon and the hippie idealism that fueled much of his early work.
Browne is such an understated singer that it was hard to hear his vocals, even from our tenth-row seats. This made it difficult to connect with his less-familiar material, and the pacing of the show never built any momentum. Perhaps Browne is past all the rock & roll dynamics that younger performers use to endear themselves to the crowd, but long stretches of the show felt flat.
After running through a rousing rendition of “Doctor My Eyes,” the band took a fifteen-minute intermission. Browne returned with an acoustic guitar to perform “Something Fine." Backed by only his background singers, his plaintive vocals were the most direct of the night. And the mix of new songs and fan favorites (including a genuinely stirring “Lives in the Balance”) led to the inevitable one-two punch of “The Pretender” and “Running on Empty.” Of the twenty songs in the set, only “Running on Empty” felt big enough to fill up the Fox. He returned to the stage, now awash in red and blue lights, to perform “I Am a Patriot,” his call for unity that included a few sideways nods to the Democratic nominee for President. Though for all of Browne’s work as an activist and vocal champion of liberal causes, Browne let his songs speak for themselves and ignored overt hectoring. (He did, however, admit to seeing Barack Obama’s riverside speech on Saturday afternoon.)
One interesting note about last night’s show: there are few performers as laid-back and gracious as Jackson Browne, but his many of fans her vociferous to the point of belligerence with their song requests. For real: We all want to hear “These Days,” but let the man do his work and please, please shut up.
1. “Boulevard” 2. “Barricades of Heaven” 3. “Everywhere I Go” 4. “Fountain of Sorrow” 5. “Time the Conqueror” 6. “Off of Wonderland” 7. “Live Nude Cabaret” 8. “Culver Moon” 9. “Giving that Heaven Away” 10. “Doctor My Eyes”
Intermission 11. “Something Fine” 12. “For Taking the Trouble” 13. “Lives in the Balance” 14. “Going Down to Cuba” 15. “Just Say Yeah” 16. Unknown 17. “Far from the Arms of Hunger” 18. “The Pretender” 19. “Running on Empty”
Encore 20. “I Am a Patriot”
-- Christian Schaeffer