Friday, March 04, 2011

18 Guitars, A Piano, and One Voice - Jackson Browne, Solo and Acoustic

You keep it up, you try so hard
To keep a life from coming apart
Never know the shallows and the unseen reefs
That are there from the start
In the shape of a heart

“In the Shape of a Heart”

To take the stage accompanied only by a guitar or a piano is a brave thing, and not something that every artist could get away with. Jackson Browne is such an artist, and he’s been doing this sort of thing for close to 50 years now. Never having seen him perform until last night, I can’t say this with any certainty, but I suspect that he’s gotten much better at it as the years have gone by. At this stage of his career, he’s a remarkably self-assured performer, one who is not afraid to hit the occasional bad note (it happens), and then make a self-deprecating joke about it.

Well, I've been up and down this highway
Far as my eyes can see
No matter how fast I run
I can never seem to get away from me

No matter where I am
I can't help thinkin', I'm just a day away
Where I wanna be
Now I'm runnin' home, baby
Like a river to the sea

“Your Bright Baby Blues”

Ultimately, a solo acoustic show comes down to the quality of the songs, and on that score – well, all you really need to know is that Browne is in the Hall of Fame, and it’s largely on the basis of his songwriting. In the solo acoustic setting, Browne doesn’t try to reinvent his songs – it’s not like a Dylan concert where you might sit there listening to a song and think to yourself, “I know I’ve heard that…what is that song?...oh yeah, To Ramona!” (that actually happened to me once). From the first notes of each song, it is clear what you’re hearing. What Browne does in these shows amounts to an in-depth examination of each song – plumbing the depths of the emotions, plumbing the depths of the politics, and plumbing the depths of the humor.

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don't know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
I look around for the friends that I used to turn to, to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too

“Running on Empty”

What becomes readily apparent over the course of the show is that Browne has never gotten tired of these songs – he sings them with vitality, and as if he had written them just the night before. And the setlist? I couldn’t have come up with a better one myself. He played nearly all of my all-time favorites: “Running on Empty,” “Late For The Sky,” “Sky Blue and Black,” “Your Bright Baby Blues,” and “In the Shape of a Heart.” There were old classics – “Farther On,” “For Everyman,” “For A Dancer.” There were newer songs – “The Barricades of Heaven,” “Going Down To Cuba,” and a brand new one, “If I Could Be Anywhere.” There was a great cover of a great Warren Zevon song, “Don’t Let Us Get Sick.” It was a wonderful mix, frequently interspersed with witty banter and heartfelt stories.

If you ever need holding
Call my name, I'll be there
If you ever need holding
And no holding back, I'll see you through
Sky, sky blue and black

“Sky Blue And Black”

It’s hard to identify one highlight from a night full of them, but if I had to pick just one it would be “Looking East,” which he absolutely killed on the guitar. It should be noted that he is really a hell of a guitar player, and on this song it resulted in a power even greater than that in the original, electric band version.

But whether it be on guitar or piano, Browne has absolutely mastered the solo acoustic format. And being one of rock’s great romantics, it’s a format that serves him and his songs well. If you have a chance to catch him, by all means do so.

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