Backed, quite literally, by 20 acoustic guitars, Jackson Browne performed a sold-out solo show at an intimate Michigan Theater in the college town of Ann Arbor last week delighting his adoring fans with an evening packed full of his resplendent and timeless songs. Walking out to center stage with a shy wave to the crowd, many of whom were still being seated, (why, oh why, can’t people get to events like this on time?), Browne alternated between acoustic guitar and a simple keyboard that, at times, sounded more like a grand piano. The singer/songwriter who continues to amaze audiences with his Dorian Gray-like good looks was in excellent spirit and and voice, charming his aging, well dressed disciples with songs both new and old. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening full of songs “for everyman (and woman).”
The Michigan Theater is located right in the middle of the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, but this was not a act that attracted many young people. They apparently have not inherited the same kind of affection for Jackson Browne as, say, Bob Dylan or The Beatles. Rather, it was a well-dressed, wine-drinking congregation who turned out; many of them baby boomers who may have been graduating from college when Jackson Browne first arrived on the music scene some four decades ago.
The California native still seemed spry and quick-witted, even if he struggled to remember the exact chords and lyrics to one of his older songs. But who can blame the man and the audience cheered even louder when he recovered from his momentary memory lapse. I mean, who of us can’t relate. The man has more than a dozen albums; a huge catalogue of music and prefers, unlike many of his peers, to avoid using the evil teleprompter. (And more power to him, I say.)
Jackson Browne began by saying how happy he was to be playing in Ann Arbor; specifically to be performing in a “theater” and not “a hockey rink.” Browne was apparently poking some fun at his recent shows in Canada. Indeed, the acoustics sounded pitch perfect. And though there may have been, what his sound engineer complained to me as “a cloudiness” to his voice at times, (apparently due to the fact that they were forced to stack, rather than hang the speakers) I doubt many in the audience noticed. Most were happy just to hear the old classic Jackson Browne songs, songs they might have played endlessly on their record players, like “Something Fine” and “Late For The Sky.” They were content to hear Jackson Browne’s stories of days long gone by. (That’s the funny thing about nostalgia. It never gets old.)
Browne balanced out the evening by also playing several newer songs. In fact, he opened the night with “The Barricades of Heaven” and played several songs from his most recent studio album, Time The Conqueror. Jackson laughed as he related a conversation he had recently with fellow singer/songwriter and troubadour James Taylor about performing new songs. Jackson said Taylor tells his audiences not to worry, that basically “the new songs are just like the old ones anyway.” And he had a point. Other than some unfamiliarity with lyrics, the newer songs blended in splendidly with his early material to form one solid and consistent sounding body of work. He even worked in one Mariachi-flavored song, written recently about , guess what, the old days. It seemed to be the night’s theme.
It was fun to watch the ease with which Browne selected a particular guitar from the rack of acoustic guitars behind him, sometimes picking one up only to put it back and select another. It was as if each guitar has a personality of its own and only certain guitars could be used to play certain songs. Browne performed the three-hour concert (including a half-hour intermission) without any kind of paper setlist, although he seemed to know in his head and intuitively what songs would work well next to one another. Browne was also quite flexible in song choices, happy to take requests/suggestions from the crowd as they shouted out many of his most familiar songs.
Perhaps the highlight of the evening came at the end of the first set when Jackson Browne played two of his greatest songs back-to-back on piano. First came the elegiac, “For A Dancer,” with Browne’s gorgeous voice reaching up to into the higher octave range quite comfortably. This was followed by a transcendent, gorgeous, anthemic rendition of the enviromentally apocalyptic, yet hopeful ballad, “Before The Deluge.”
Now let the music keep our spirits high
And let the buildings keep our children dry
Let creation reveal it’s secrets by and by
By and by–
When the light that’s lost within us reaches the sky
Lyrics like these sung so movingly are what has garnered Jackson Browne the devoted following he’s had for the last forty years. They were also what had the audience at the Michigan Theater on their feet at the end of the night cheering; fully satisfied and renewed.