It’s easy to underestimate Jackson Browne, despite his massive success and his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For roughly forty years, he’s made songwriting and performing look effortless. His biggest hits, such as “Take It Easy”, “Running on Empty”, and “The Pretender”, are both smart and accessible, coasting along on catchy and fluid choruses. They’ve also shown a restlessness at the heart of Browne’s music that sets him apart in the West Coast singer-songwriter movement of the ‘70s.
So when you get wind of a Jackson Browne tour, a part of you naturally assumes, “Ah, greatest hits tour.” What could be easier for an artist than to pack up the guitars (about fifteen of them, in Jackson Browne’s case) and go play all the hits, counting the cash while a bunch of baby boomers bask in a little nostalgia? After all, who but dedicated Browne fans can name a song he’s released since the mid ‘80s? As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Browne went into a rabbit hole of political songs wrapped in ‘80s production and never came out. Classic rock radio helped make Jackson Browne, but it also abandoned him when his songs courted controversy or strayed from the realm of the personal that everyone could identify with.
If you thumbed through Browne’s most recent releases, they might underscore that notion. The last ten years have seen two studio albums of new material (2002’s The Naked Ride Home and 2008’s Time the Conqueror), but they’ve also seen a greatest hits disc, a live greatest hits disc, two discs of live acoustic hits, and a live album with longtime collaborator David Lindley. If you actually listened to those albums though (especially the stellar Solo Acoustic records), you were probably struck with one thought: “Holy crap, that’s a lot of great songs!” Rather than attempt to milk former glories, those releases instead seem like Browne’s attempts to rescue some of his catalog from obscurity and to take some of his more well-known songs back to their singer-songwriter bones. Much like John Prine’s first live album gave us definitive acoustic versions of his songs (as opposed to studio production that masked the power of some great songs), Browne’s recent catalog overviews force you to listen to the songs, rather than the compressed drums or broad, sweeping arrangements that have typified some of his later work.
That seeming refusal to rest on his laurels carries over to his current tour. When his Greenville performance was all said and done, you could count the hits that Browne played on one hand, and two of those, “Running on Empty” and “Take It Easy”, closed the show. It was obvious from the moment that he kicked off with a gorgeous rendition of Lives in the Balance‘s “Black and White”, followed it with an unreleased song about the Haiti earthquakes (“Standing in the Breach”), and altered the show in mid-reach for a guitar when someone requested “Redneck Friend”, that Browne’s not interested in being a nostalgia act. His set made its way through song after song that has never been within a mile of classic rock radio. He’s still writing songs. He can still play and sing as well as he ever could. He can put together a set list of deep album cuts that cohere better than most people’s hits.
Browne told the audience he designed the show to be a hybrid of the acoustic solo shows that he’d been doing and a living room jam session. So the audience got stretches of Browne by himself, with his drummer and guitarist, and with opener Sara Watkins and her band. Watkins had enchanted the audience with a set that had straddled the line between the forward-looking tendencies of Nickel Creek (her old band) and looking back to her roots (a creepy and insistent cover of the Everly Brothers’ “You’re the One I Love” and a traditional bluegrass number were highights). As good as Sara Watkins and company were in their opening set, which kept the audience enthralled in a laid-back way, I’d argue that she and her band had to work a bit harder during Browne’s songs. Browne’s “Live Nude Cabaret” found Watkins giving her most expressive fiddle solo of the night. Browne even turned the spotlight to his guitarist, Val McCallum, so that he could sing “Tokyo Girl” from his own new album.
Browne’s set was truly an overview of his career, stretching from 1972’s self-titled debut all the way through 2008’s Time the Conqueror (and beyond, if you count the unreleased song). An early and rousing “Redneck Friend” increased the energy level of the show five-fold. “That’s a fun song to have in your back pocket,” Browne quipped after the raucous applause subsided. Later, a stately take on “The Pretender” brought the house down. “The Barricades of Heaven”, from 1996’s Looking East, was also a highlight as it escaped the rather bland production of its album home. For a short time, Browne entertained requests, which gave the show a loose and freewheeling feel. By show’s end, though, he had gotten back on the rails of the set list, driving towards the one-two punch of “Running On Empty” and “Take It Easy” to close the show. When the house lights went on, it was safe to say that most of the night’s set had been a complete surprise to most people. Even people who thought they knew their Jackson Browne front to back ended up hearing songs they didn’t know or didn’t remember. Just the kind of show you’d hope for from an artist who obviously didn’t lose his way as much as some might have thought he did.