“You know, he sounded JUST as good as he sounded when I saw him in the ’90s!” The comment, uttered by a fellow concertgoer as we were leaving Sunday night’s Jackson Browne concert at the Time Warner Cable Amphitheater in Cleveland hit the nail right on the head, covering our evening musical experience perfectly with a quick sentence. At 61 years of age, Browne’s vocals are nearly as smooth and perfect as they were back in the heyday. (And judging from the hooting and hollering of the ladies in the audience, his looks are holding up nicely as well.) In fact, during a blistering rendition of Browne’s classic “Running on Empty” which closed out the band’s main set, you really could close your eyes and imagine that you were back in the ’70s hearing a soon-to-be classic for the first time. Despite the fact that the evening’s setlist was heavily (and happily) slanted towards the classics, everything felt extremely fresh and inspired.
Prior to the release of his most recent studio album Time The Conqueror in 2008, Browne’s recent touring has been predominantly solo acoustic, and that separation from touring with a band seems to have brought a new life to even the most familiar Jackson Browne favorites. While Browne wasn’t excessively chatty, his interaction with the crowd was warm and it was interesting to hear the story behind a few songs, like “My Problem Is You” for example – which as it turns out, is a sweet and tender love song composed for Browne’s girlfriend. You missed that too, huh? His girlfriend was similarly puzzled and amused, noting that most singer-songwriters compose love songs for their girlfriends and wives that are a bit more apparent, songs like “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” (Browne has taken better care of his longtime love interest since then with album tracks like “My Stunning Mystery Companion.”)
Although his songwriting subject matter deals often with the stormy complexities of love and life, the concert experience with Browne and his band was joyful and I was extremely excited by the inclusion of Browne’s longtime musical friend David Lindley on the bill. (Love is Strange, a recently released acoustic double live album from the pair provides a nice opportunity to include Lindley on this summer’s touring bill.) Lindley can be a mesmerizing presence on-stage for the uninitiated – both visually as the colorfully dressed “Prince of Polyester” (wearing double the amount of polyester on the night due to an anticipated chilly evening) and with his wide array of musical instruments from the electric sitar to his signature lap steel guitar, lighting up many of Browne’s classics with the familiar solos as you remember them from the record, starting with “Your Bright Baby Blues,” with additional instrumentation including electric violin and even an oud. An oud? Yes, an oud! Browne joked with Lindley that he should record an album of American classics retitled for the oud – you know, potential favorites like “Oud Lovin’,” “Oud Vibrations,” “Johnny Be Oud,” etc. etc. etc. You get the impression that if Browne and Lindley were out on the road just a little bit longer, they might even work up arrangements of some of these unique numbers.
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Browne and Lindley began an evening that would stretch out to be nearly three hours of music with a 45 minute acoustic set. Opening with a pair of covers that included a swampy rendition of Warren Zevon’s “Seminole Bingo” (especially appropriate with the current talk of casinos coming to Cleveland) and Bruce Springsteen’s “Brothers Under The Bridge,” both sung by Lindley. Two of Browne’s own catalog favorites followed, “Looking East” and “For Everyman,” before Browne departed from the stage, leaving his friend to play a couple of songs by himself. “Soul of a Man,” the first of the two, illustrated perfectly how much Lindley marches to the beat of his own drummer, choosing a track for his initial spotlight moment that winds through a number of acoustic nooks and crannies for nearly 5 minutes before eventually reaching the vocal climax. A unique version of Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” wrapped up the six song opener and Lindley left the stage, effectively closing out the opening set with a short break before Browne’s electric set with the band and Lindley began the second half of the show. (I initially figured that Browne and his band would simply join Lindley at the conclusion of the acoustic set.)
Time The Conqueror as an album seems a bit awkward in its pacing and in looking at the setlists from the initial touring cycle in 2008 (typically heavy with material from the latest album), I think it probably would have been slightly disappointing for any fan in attendance unfamiliar with the new album expecting to hear a setlist heavy on the hits. Sunday night’s setlist satisfied that urge for many and the three newish tracks that kicked off the electric set, “Off To Wonderland,” “Giving That Heaven Away” and “Just Say Yeah,” actually fit comfortably within the set among the older material, almost as if Browne had unearthed a trio of unheard rarities especially for the show. While I would have enjoyed hearing the title track (for both the latest album and I’m Alive, actually), the electric portion of the setlist was extremely well mapped out. The band of players – guitarist Mark Goldenberg, bassist Kevin McCormick, drummer Mauricio “Fritz” Lewak and keyboardist Jeff Young (plus the newer members – background vocalists Dannielle DeAndrea and Alethea Mills) have been Browne’s backing band for nearly 20 years, so it’s safe to say that they’ve got the material down, which is a big part of what made the evening such a pleasure. You can always count on guys like Jackson to have ace players backing them up.
For me personally, it was a great thrill to finally see Browne perform with David Lindley, something that seemed to be unfortunately a bit lost on the crowd at certain points, but I think it’s an unspoken rule somewhere that you’re required to talk through all acoustic sets, at least in Cleveland. I heard Lindley’s music for the first time in the summer of 1990 while on vacation with my family in Florida and it was some of the most unique music that I had ever heard at that point (from the Very Greasy album, for those keeping track) and even now, Lindley remains an innovative presence to watch and hear. I would compare Lindley’s sound as similar to the style of guitarist Adrian Legg in that they both have the ability to pull sounds from their instruments that sound like they’re being played by a duo or trio of people, instead of merely one.
This tour begs for a live album and/or DVD release, something that will finally capture a full electric performance from Browne going deeper than the closest substitute, the Going Home special, a collection of mostly live excerpts released in the mid-’90s (recently re-released on DVD by Eagle Rock Entertainment).
– There were a couple of nice nuggets in the setlist tonight for me personally, including “Late For The Sky,” which has been sporadically in the setlist throughout the tour and an extremely rare version of “Rosie” performed by request (and I think it’s only been performed live only one previous time on this tour, also by request).
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– Speaking of requests, Browne’s request-only setlists in recent years became something of a monster with the overwhelming din of the audience yelling out requests in between songs becoming quite annoying. Either the audience in Cleveland was exceptionally well-behaved on the night, or the slightly structured setlist of this current tour is working out for the better.
– The encores were perfect. After “Running On Empty,” I honestly found myself wondering what they would possibly wrap up with, even though I had seen the setlist prior to the night. A super-bitchin’ rendition “Mercury Blues,” one of Lindley’s most well-known covers was the answer and after that one, I found myself again wondering how Jackson would bring it home. Appropriately enough, it was a reggae-flecked version of “I Am A Patriot” that brought things to a very satisfying conclusion.
We’re all appreciative that Jackson’s tour routing finally found Cleveland again after a lengthy absence and hopefully we’ll see a return engagement very soon!
acoustic opening set:
Seminole Bingo (Warren Zevon)
Brothers Under The Bridge (Bruce Springsteen)
David Lindley solo performance:
Soul of A Man
Copperhead Road (Steve Earle)
Electric set with full band:
Off Of Wonderland
Giving That Heaven Away
Just Say Yeah
Shape of A Heart
Your Bright Baby Blues
Fountain of Sorrow
For A Dancer
Rock Me On The Water
My Problem Is You
Too Many Angels
Late For The Sky
Doctor My Eyes
Running on Empty
I Am A Patriot (Little Steven)