Fountains of sorrow-tinged joy
By JOSEF WOODARD
Jackson Browne took numerous audience requests during Sunday night’s three-hour Lobero Theatre show.
Catching Jackson Browne in flesh and sound, as a full house did at the Lobero on Sunday, shouldn’t really seem such the special occasion that it did. He has lived part time in the larger Santa Barbara area for countless years, after all, and as a good activist sort has repeatedly showed at benefit concerts in the area. Still, those appearances have often been fleeting cameos and attached to causes.
Most recently, he showed up to sing three tunes at January’s celebration of the 100th concert in the “Sings Like Hell” series, the host of Sunday’s appearance. As series founder Peggie Jones mentioned upfront, Browne phoned her years back, as one of the first eager subscribers to the well-established series.
What we got on Sunday night, instead, was an epic encounter with an important singer-songwriter, up close and personal in one of the finest small halls anywhere. For three hours, Browne served up a no-set-list, jukebox-effect show, tolerating neurotic outbursts of requests from the crowd — at his own invitation — and happily filling many of them. Armed with 13 (count ’em) variously tuned and specifically toned guitars, a surplus that he sheepishly joked about, and one keyboard, Browne, our adopted homeboy, gently soared this night.
Despite his global imprint, there has always been something regional about Browne’s music, well-sprinkled with such regional references as the 101 lore of his hit “Running on Empty” (played here in a fresh way, on a deep, thrumming, open-tuned guitar). By extension, those of us who grew up in Southern California might even feel twinges of proprietary interest attached to an artist who captures the gestalt of a particular time and place.
That sympathetic ear also allows people to overlook certain deficiencies, such as Browne’s resistance to getting over a youthful navel-gazing tendency and the sameness of his musical language. You might take issue, after prolonged exposure, to his droning earnestness, overly fastidious rhyme scheming and the recurring melodic and chordal patterns in his songcraft. Set all that aside, and Browne remains an American original whose influence can be heard far and wide.
A heavy whiff of nostalgia was palpable in the Lobero, and more generally in the recent news front. Browne was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and also released a new “best of” album. Both occasions can mark an artist easing into veteran status, where resting on laurels is a valid option. But Browne has been creatively active, too, releasing one of the stronger of his recent albums, “The Naked Ride Home,” in 2002.
Newer work wasn’t the main focus at the Lobero. He opened with “Barricades of Heaven,” from 1996’s “Looking East,” with its refrain about “pages turning” suggesting the bittersweet passage of time, a theme dating to when he was just a young squirt with plenty of time on his hands. Other tunes, like his version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” and his memorable “Fountain of Sorrow” bring to the surface his melancholic strain, always lined with hope and comforting poetic sentimentality.
In the close-up setting of this long, relaxed solo journey through Browne’s musical brain, personal trends became clear. In songs like “The Pretender,” “Rock Me on the Water” and many others, it’s difficult to miss Browne’s strong reliance on gospel music, both in terms of musical elements and ideological vocabulary, though his own brand of religiosity is ecumenically ambiguous.
Browne walks fine, fragile lines in his songs. Philosophical statements mix with confessional romanticism and periodic sociopolitical calls to arms. One of the most powerful songs of the night was “Lives in the Balance.”
Although written in the mid-’80s, such lines as “selling us your wars” help it gain an entirely new sting and relevance in the Bush years. The crowd was inspired to give a standing ovation.
Comic relief showed up as Browne pulled out his breezy gravy train tune “Take It Easy.”
The underlying joke is that Browne was never one to take it easy, but the royalty checks from the Eagles hit are doubtlessly super-sweet.
At encore time, Browne dug back deep in his musical history, to his early classic “These Days.”
Written at 16, it sounds like an early blueprint for songs he’d write for the next four decades. He then played “Late for the Sky,” the title tune to his masterful 1974 album and one of a handful of great tunes Browne has penned.
Try as we might, it’s be hard to listen to the song without conjuring up an image of Travis Bickle, the haunting anti-hero in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” listening to the song on his scrappy television in his New York apartment.
Soaking in the song’s melancholic and, yes, gospel-flavored beauty, Bickle seems to gain both vaguely spiritual renewal and fuel for some bone-deep restlessness that, in his case, leads to extreme action.
That duality gets at the strange appeal of Browne’s work. His song catalog is a warm bath with surprising cold spots, a soothing force lined with wake-up calls.