Words by Ed King / Live pics by Aatish Ramchurn
I’m standing on a corner in Selly Park, Birmingham, waiting to go and see Jackson Browne; it’s a grey English Tuesday, I’m late and my hair is too long for the humidity. Some problems are obvious and fickle. But with a portfolio stretching back to the front lines of the 60’s what to expect on stage (and off) tonight is a little less clear; the Symphony Hall has billed this gig as ‘An Evening with…’ but that might not be long enough.
Known for a string of household hits he wrote for other artists, then propelling himself into the spotlight with his eponymous debut LP in 1972, Jackson Browne was a golden boy of his time. Combining celebrity status with talent (something that’s not a given in the music industry), sex appeal, five albums in five years, and an ability to write songs of equal beauty about love, loss and foreign policy, Jackson Browne carved himself a unique place into the American songbook.
There’s some pretty sterling peer reviews too, with Bruce Springsteen declaring that “in 70’s post Vietnam America, there was no album that captured the fall from Eden, the long slow after burn of the 60’s – its heartbreak, it’s disappointments, its spent possibilities, better than Jackson’s masterpiece Late for the Sky” as he inducted Browne into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. And that from the man who wrote ‘The River’.
But to me Jackson Browne’s seminal album was Lives in the Balance – which combined his almost Faustian songwriting (…a dark red signature somewhere wouldn’t totally surprise me) with a proud dig at America’s ‘friends’ and the ‘Governments killing their own’ that we still rally against today. Some problems are obvious and yet never go away. But at 50quid a pop I’m not sure how many people will be sitting left of centre at the Symphony Hall tonight – despite the four story auditorium being virtually sold out before we published our BPREVIEW.
After some rushing around with a ticket in my mouth looking for gates and doors (think last call for a long haul flight) I land at Seat 16 / Row N – as central as I could have hoped to be; the lead mic stand is about 30metres directly in front of me. As soon as I sit down Jackson Browne walks onto the Symphony Hall stage with the casual confidence of a teenager who’s learnt to live forever, moving straight into ‘Just Say Yeah’ and launching ‘An Evening…’ with a track from his penultimate LP, Time the Conqueror – the first release via Browne’s own imprint, Inside Recordings.
The sound is immediate and impressive, with a tight band who clearly work well together fronting a man whose vocals sound as near to the record as you could expect them to be. Mind you, when you’ve been performing for half a century this is either patronising or a moot point. Or arguably should be.
‘The Long Way Round’ is up next, from Browne’s most recent album Standing in the Breach; even messing up the first verse doesn’t faze the front man, as we “…just start over” and laugh our way through the mishap. I hear more ‘whoops’ and ad hoc cat calls than I have from any Birmingham audience in a while. A solo piano introduces the next song – ‘After the Deluge’, the closing track from The Boss lauded LP – and starts a trend of sporadic stand up ovations that would continue throughout the night.
Somewhat downplaying his own political portfolio, Jackson Browne introduces the often “unrecognized… scathing satire” of Randy Newman next, with a cover of ‘A Piece of the Pie’ – the Harps & Angels album track that cites Browne as the chorus’ punchline. Worth noting here that Greg Leisz plays lap guitar in Jackson Browne’s touring band, who is excellent throughout.
We leave the acerbic dissonance of Newman’s two fingers to the American dream and head “back to my songs… like falling off a log” with the title track from Browne’s 1993 LP, I’m Alive, before returning to the source (kinda, sorta) with the title track of his sophomore LP, For Everyman. It is at this point I notice some of the Symphony Hall audience who are holding their hands in the air, pointing to the ceiling and giving the occasional fist pump of solidarity; a nasty side of me can’t help but laugh at the ironic and ‘strangled cries of lawyers in love’, celebrating an ideology they are paid well to forget. Integrity’s not a pastime and altruism’s a bitch. But judgment’s pretty shitty too and I’m not proud of these thoughts.
A superb drum roll denouement highlights the tight proficiency of the touring ensemble on stage, before bringing us another call to arms with ‘Walls and Doors’, again from Browne’s latest LP – “a song that would be good for your country to hear right now”. Written by the nueva trova singer/songwriter Carlos Varela, the poignant pen from America’s island neighbor couldn’t be more pertinent – as Browne’s homeland continues to ostracise the “collective joy” of Cuba whilst our own gets dangerously close to doing the same with mainland Europe. A shout out request brings Browne back to the ivory to perform ‘For a Dancer’, which breaks me in two, before a foot stomping delivery of ‘Doctor My Eyes’ takes us into the interval. I pick through the somewhat sauntering Symphony Hall crowd, looking for the quickest route to rum and then back to my seat.
The second set opens with ‘The Late Show’, alongside an almost offensive volley of requests from the post interval drink audience. It seems ‘For a Dancer’ set a dangerous precedent; dance boy dance… it’s a little rude. Although one shout out mercifully (selfishly) makes is down from the balcony and onto the stage; Browne tunes a steel guitar with Latin flavour as the unmistakable message of ‘Lives in the Balance’ comes triumphant off stage, complete with an extra verse citing 9-11 sang beautifully by Althea Mills. My turn to stand up and clap.
Another cover (and homage) brings Warren Zevron’s ‘Caramlita’ rolling round the Symphony Hall, as shoulders across the ‘world renowned’ auditorium twitch with memory, condemnation or ignorant bliss. How appropriate. Now we’re heading into the halfway point of a two set performance, something not many artists can hold up, and I write ‘if he plays ‘Late for the Sky’ this could be the last of my perfect evenings’ whilst Browne pays tribute to his friend and lover, Valerie Carter, though ‘That Girl Could Sing’ – from his 1980 LP, Hold Out.
So guess what comes up next… I put my notebook and pen on the floor.
The rest of the set plays out with some of the great and good from Jackson Browne‘s half century portfolio with ‘The Pretender’, ‘In the Shape of a Heart’ and ‘Running on Empty’ all getting a notable outing. There were some noticeable omissions too, as that-song-from-that-film was left in the dust jacket, along with ‘The Load Out’, ‘Rosie’ or anything from Lawyers in Love. As half the Symphony Hall takes to its feet whilst the other half rush to the front of the stage, we say goodbye to ‘An Evening with Jackson Browne’ in an encore medley of ‘Take it Easy’ and ‘Our Lady of the Well’. And I was right, we would have welcomed longer.
I have my reasons for being here tonight as everyone in this room will do; at nearly £50 a ticket in a four story auditorium, that’s a lot of reasons. And as I began the evening wondering who I’d be sharing it with I end realising the error of my assumptions; Jackson Browne is a composite songwriter, a confident performer, with the power of both his lyrics and his melodies reaching comfortably across five decades and beyond. You could accuse me of ‘gushing’ here but it’s hard not to when you see this on stage.
I guess it’s the memories and the inspiration too, getting to believe that one person’s work can truly make a difference – and what’s more personal than your politics, eh Steve? This made me write.
And now, over 30 years after the car journeys that introduced me to this artist, I get to see such expression delivered so beautifully – all whilst crossing two boxes off my bucket list and singing along to both of them.
(‘Late for the Sky’… in case you were wondering)
For more on Jackson Browne, visit www.jacksonbrowne.com
For more from Inside Recordings, visit www.insiderecordings.com
For more on the Guacamole Fund, visit www.guacfund.org
For more from the Town & Symphony Halls, visit www.thsh.co.uk