Jackson Browne at The Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont
July 14th, 2009
Jackson Browne should have opened his two-set performance with "I'm Alive," closed it with "Running On Empty," and encored with the much-requested "Redneck Friend." In so doing he'd have effectively avoided the pedestrian moments early in the first set ("Boulevard," "Tender is the Night") and framed his entire show in such a way as to highlight the mix of new and old material.
But that might have been too obvious for a man who's best work defines understatement. Like the show as a whole, the impact of this one, part of Higher Ground's Concerts on the Green Series at the picturesque Vermont site, was cumulative. Browne's own measured delivery found a proportionately restrained response from his audience (apart from the rabble roused by the sanctimonious diatribe called "Lives in the Balance").
The California singer/songwriter bravely intertwined a fifty-fifty mix of vintage songs with tunes from his last two studio albums and the most personal numbers from more recent work: the title songs of both The Naked Ride Home (Elektra, 2002) and Time the Conqueror (Inside, 2008) sounded of a piece with "Fountain of Sorrow" as well as "Sky Blue and Black." Noting how songs change meaning over the years, he also obliquely called attention to how "About My Imagination" dealt with the same issues as "Jamaica Say You Will," with which the former number was coupled to end the first set.
After more than three decades, Jackson Browne remains an ingratiatingly sympathetic figure, and not just because his between-song repartee flows naturally with such good self-deprecating humor. His best songs of recent vintage ("Off of Wonderland" or "Jamaica Say You Will") describe how we can recognize the passage of time, and he retains the insight to capture moments that define relationshipsas he does so deftly on "My Problem Is You." If there was a musical fault to his show on this cool summer night, it was a dual interrelated issue: most of his tunes move at a temperate pacehence the need for more up-tempo rockersand he doesn't give his band much of a chance to stretch out.
And they certainly could, by which act(s) they might have avoided a lack of emotional investment in their playing, rendering much of it merely proficient. Guitarist Mark Goldenberg could apply his accurate fingering to interplay with keyboardist Jeff Young, the sum effect of which would have elevated the intensity of gospel-tinged outro of "The Pretender" and rendered it inspiring. Such instrumental interplay would have taken nothing away from the brilliance of the best material Browne writes, like "Doctor My Eyes" or "Going Down to Cuba." In fact, it might just reaffirm the subtle topicality of "Goin' Down to Cuba" so that the ever-so- mellow audience would catch the wordplay.
With its slowly dawning exultation, "Just Say Yeah" would have been the perfect capper to this show, but even given the encore of "Stay," Browne certainly wasn't indulging in nostalgia (even though the sunset over the mountain landscape behind the stage lent itself to greeting card sentiment) on his Vermont tourstop. Rather he was making a concerted effort to demonstrate how the struggle of youth isn't all that different from the struggle of adulthood and that, if we can learn to deal with the first, we have educated ourselves to deal with the second. In so doing, the eternally youthful sage suggested, as much through his quietly willful demeanor as his choice of songs, that there's no need to give in to either despair or bitterness.
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