From deep in the cheapseats looking down at the softly lit stage of the Beacon Theater Saturday night, it was as if time had chosen to freeze Jackson Browne. The SoCal singer songwriter in the same visage he has had since the 1960s: long thick straight hair, trim and fit, chick magnet with a sensitive side and as many gifts at losing a girl as at picking one up. His voice is still a beautiful, full, instrument, his persona a laid back California bemused by us New Yorkers, "always keeping things real by playing the clown". An L.A. James Taylor without the drugs (coke? sure -junk? I don't think so) but plagued by self-doubt that riddles his song. A friend of mine who knows him claims he has masochistic tendencies. Perhaps that's why his languor is so apologetic in tone and, why, for a New York audience, he is a touch too laid back.
To put it another way: the sets a touch on the boring side, but only a touch. Essentially, he plays half songs readied for the tour, and half songs on the spur of the moment based upon audience requests, but despite the depth of his catalog, he doesn't go that deeply in. Two thirds romantic, one third political dystopias, all so melodic and gracefully written, they can feel extremely diffident to a rock fan. With a six piece backing band, he leaves the majority off stage for much of the year, and let's them roar twice, once at the end of the set and once at the end of the encore. . That's what you get when you leave your "Red Neck Friend" in your pants!
Three of the first four songs are politics a la Cali, and all of them and beautiful but sleepy. Only a perfect (actually everything is played and sang perfectly) "I'm Alive" saves the first 20 minutes from wrecking the entire set. there is no doubt Jackson knows this, he has been playing the PDs all tour: We might not want another song about Haiti but want it or not here is the pretty "Standing In The Breach" a call to the usual crap we are being called to.
But after that, Browne is in control, and as he dithers between piano and guitar, trying to decide what to play next, not cruise control, it is the theater of the real. We get For both "Everyman" and "A Ballerina and "These Days" , and "The Late Show". From the first album, "A Child Of These Hills", which Jackson explains, "Is about being in New York and missing home, though I didn't know it at the time" and includes a gorgeous harp outro by Val McCallum. And "Looking Into You" also off the first album. No "My Stunning Mystery Companion"
The evening ends with three sure shots, "running On Empty", "The Pretender" and "Take It Easy"-giving the set a full head of steam as we head for the exists even if "Live Nude Cabaret" is the musical highlight. Jackson introduces the latter as being about "Obsessive reverence for the female form" and features the full band in a groove and opening performer Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins stellar fiddling.
In retrospect, I enjoyed the two hour set more than I did at the time. Browne is timeless but sometimes he makes time standstill and sometimes he makes it rush past you, Saturday night, I was very bored when the times stood still, but certainly by the 45 minutes he had it down. "Here on stage, we fell a little uncomfortable when we visit New York", Browne explained at the end of the "But you have made us so welcome". I am not sure if he was quite uncomfortable, he didn't seem ill at ease, the uncertainty was more the spur of the moment kick of improvisation. "Don't let the uncertainty turn you around", Jackson sang to us.
He certainly didn't.