Jackson Browne
at Providence Performing Arts Center,
Providence, Rhode Island
(4 April 2008)

A handsome man, a keyboard and 15 guitars. When brought together, they foreshadow a wonderful evening of acoustic music. Place them in a magnificent auditorium with a receptive audience and the result is a visit to the past, many smiles and much appreciative applause.

The setting this night was the Providence Performing Arts Center, a downtown theater that dates to the late 1920s. From the outside, it looks just like any other four-story building with a storefront, save for the neon marquee and the computerized panel advertising upcoming shows. As soon as you walk in, though, your attention is drawn to the bold paisley carpet that covers the lobby and aisles. When you lift your gaze, you see its palette repeated in the intricate woodcarvings that grace every wall and fill the cavernous room with repeated crests, medallions and swirling flourishes. It's a study in opulence. Any surface that isn't painted gold is instead a deep red or a bright turquoise. The decadence continues in the crimson satin seat cushions and the heavy gold-fringed stage curtains. Art deco wall sconces gleam behind frosted glass.

Looking up at the ceiling in awe, I was reminded of attending concerts years ago at the Coronado Theater in Rockford, Illinois. Both facilities were originally constructed primarily as movie houses, and it turns out that they were even built about the same time. Those were the days when live performances were celebrated in those venues, and such houses were designed with the principles of acoustics in mind. Arenas and stadiums were considered back then to be merely domains for sports competitions.

Jackson Browne's theater tour coincided with the Spring 2008 release of Solo Acoustic Vol. 2, a companion to the first volume that was issued in 2005. The selections on both recordings were taken from previous concerts and include pre-song banter as Browne tells brief tales to the audience. Listening to the CDs (as well as to the old 1977 concert album, Running on Empty) can prepare you for the music in person. But not for the sound, and not for the intimacy. You have to be there to get the full experience.

Browne appeared in a casual long-sleeved blue shirt (untucked) and faded pants. His straight brown hair was combed into the familiar pageboy and was set off with -- surprise! -- the addition of a nicely-trimmed gray beard and mustache. He grabbed the first guitar on the rack and launched into "The Barricades of Heaven." Then he moved to the seat behind the electronic keyboard (because for amplification purposes, this show was not a truly "unplugged" one) and pecked at the keys for "Sky Blue & Black." He looked around and commented on the beauty of the theater as he began to play "The Birds of St. Mark."

Browne is known for having no pre-determined set list for these gigs, and savvy fans feel free to shout song suggestions as soon as previous applause dies away. Browne seems to take the situation in stride, noodling at the piano or idly picking at the guitar in hand before letting one of the recommendations take hold and deciding what to play next. "I'm just lazy enough to do whatever you want," he said, to cheerful response. But he also warned us that he enjoyed playing unexpected tunes, just to see if he could remember them. And so he continued with "I'm Alive," "Looking into You," "Looking East," "Before the Deluge" and "Fountain of Sorrow," alternating between guitar and piano accompaniment.

His distinctive voice was just as we remembered it; and his lyrics quietly addressed such topics as romantic relationships, politics and the human condition in general.

He and his band are headed for the recording studio later this year, and Browne is still refining the album lineup. He shared with us one catchy number that's slated for the new CD. With lines like "Time is on my side" and "Every bird sings its own song," he admitted that the tune was unfinished and as of yet, had no title. Browne talked more to the audience than most performers do these days. He told quick personal vignettes that weren't the same as the ones on the solo recordings, wisely aware that many in the audience would have been disappointed to hear the same stories they heard on the discs. He proved to be quite well spoken. But why wouldn't he be, given the thoughts and complexities in his signature lyrics?

After 30 years, he said, he finally understood what the necessary ingredients were for a concert to be a good experience for him. He had to be well rested. The audience had to be familiar with his work. And the acoustics in the auditorium had to be good. "I love it here," he nodded, paying homage to the classic theater. Indeed, the music resounded perfectly in that space. Browne closed the opening set in south-of-the-border flair with "Linda Paloma."

After a 20-minute intermission, Browne started off the second half with "For Everyman" and followed it up with "Your Bright Blue Eyes." Then he did a song that was unfamiliar to me, but I loved it: "I'm the Cat." "Baby, I'm allowed to be late when I'm coming home / You know I'll be there when I want to / And you let me roam / You think you've got me figured out / I don't know about that / But when you want to twist and shout / Baby, I'm the cat."

You had to envy Browne's stance between songs as he looked over his choice of guitars, thinking of the possibilities, like a chocoholic contemplating the varieties of candies in a fragrant Whitman sampler. Once he made his decision and sat down, either on his wooden guitar-playing chair or onto the padded keyboard throne, the rest of the room was enthralled. More than one listener strummed an air guitar in time. More than one pressed invisible octaves onto the tops of his or her kneecaps. This was familiar music.

Of course, the original renditions of all of these songs included a full contingent of musicians that helped to fill out the mix. In many cases, Browne has had to make new arrangements in order to do justice to the tunes on his own. Yes, he wrote the melodies, but he had to learn how to perform them all over again. He conceded that was the case as he sat at the piano for both "Here Come Those Tears Again" and "Somebody's Baby." The keyboard assignment had not been his on those two recordings. But if you had lived in a cave in the late '70s and '80s and had never heard those charted hits in their first forms, you wouldn't know that anything was missing. On this night whatever sound he produced, on solo six-string or at the keys, created the illusion of fullness. Especially in that marvelous theater setting.

Browne bounced back up to use guitars for "Something Fine" and "These Days" before returning to the piano bench for a classic from Running on Empty, the story of band groupie "Rosie." "I can tell you, this song is not about me," he clarified. "But I saw it happen almost every night. It still happens." Then he invited stagehand and guitar technician Manny Alvarez to join him in another Running on Empty entry, "Nothing but Time." With lyrics that recall the tedium of a musician's road trip between Portland, Maine, and the New Jersey line, it was only appropriate for us in Providence (right off I-95) to hear this bluesy tune. Manny aptly supplied the lead to Jackson's rhythm base, and the duet added a nice touch to the evening.

As soon as that song ended, Alvarez exited and Browne strode purposefully to the piano and without any fiddling about at all, began playing "The Pretender." Released more than 30 years ago, its lyrics were even then a lament for Baby Boomers who were trying to choose between conforming to society's expectations and following their own hearts. Should you settle down and "be a happy idiot and struggle for the legal tender"? If everyone did so, would "the ships bearing their dreams sail out of sight"? "Say a prayer for the Pretender / Who started out so young and strong, only to surrender." How many of us had acquiesced? The implications of the music provided food for thought.

Suspecting that this selection might be the last one of the evening, everyone cheered loudly and applauded madly over the final chords. Thankfully, Browne walked over and picked up the only Spanish-style guitar on stage and gave us "Our Lady of the Well." Eventually, to the glee of the audience, that song segued into "Take It Easy," which Browne co-wrote with Glenn Frey. Browne even got up from his chair, and for part of the tune, he played while marching across the stage in Eagles "All-Night-Long" fashion. He relied on the audience to supply the "oooh, oooh" vocals at the end of the song. And a final low E-minor chord marked the initial end of the performance.

But of course, we couldn't let him leave just yet. Once again, the audience helped fill in the vocals for the first encore, "Running on Empty." Browne came back for a second encore to do a cover of Little Steven Van Zandt's "I am a Patriot." "I am a patriot / And I love my country / Because my country is all I know / I want to be with my family / The people who understand me / I've got nowhere else to go / And the river opens for the righteous / And the river opens for the righteous / And the river opens for the righteous ... someday." It was a fitting benediction for this election year.

Only nine of Jackson Browne's 15 guitars ended up in his hands this night. At another town and for another show, the mix would no doubt be different. Back in 1977, the compilers of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock (Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden) described Jackson Browne as "one of the more considerable talents working in the rock medium," and they predicted that he would be "likely to survive most of his contemporaries." Well, we lost for good the voices of Dan Fogelberg, Warren Zevon and John Denver. But similar American troubadour songwriters are still recording and touring, more than 30 years later: America, Crosby Stills Nash and sometimes Young, Bob Dylan, The Eagles, Arlo Guthrie, Janis Ian, Billy Joel, Carole King, Gordon Lightfoot, Kenny Loggins, Poco, Pure Prairie League, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Simon & Garfunkel and James Taylor are examples.

Turning 60 later this year, Jackson Browne has proven not only that he has survived and but also that he has what it takes to continue to create great music.

If you miss the chance to witness Browne's solo tour, you can recreate the spirit of it by listening to the CDs mentioned above, Solo Acoustic Vol. 1, Solo Acoustic Vol. 2 and Running on Empty. With a decent sound system, you might come close to simulating the concert experience. But there's nothing like sharing a beautiful space with someone for several hours in person. It takes a confident and competent musician to stand up in front of an audience, night after night, without the assistance of others. Jackson Browne is no pretender.

by Corinne H. Smith
22 November 2008

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