Jackson Browne returned to San Diego with a stellar band and a devoted sold out audience at the Civic Theatre. With a songbook that is rivaled only by a few others for its depth and strength, Browne was able to fill nearly two and half hours of excellent stagecraft.
Punctuated occasionally by his chatter (“Sometimes I play back some of my shows and I think I should just shut the hell up between songs,” he admitted at one point), the setlist ranged from early classics to more recent songs.
His first rambling introduction came after the third song, when he was giving a roundabout introduction to “Leaving Winslow,” also placed fourth on his latest album. Naturally the introduction wound around to the line in “Take It Easy” and how the latter song’s co-writer Glenn Frey took a song about a Native American standing on an Arizona street corner and turned it into a hit.
Browne closed out the show with a celebratory encore of “Take It Easy” which segued brilliantly into “Our Lady of the Well,” in a pairing even better than when the songs were originally melded via studio wizardry on his sophomore album.
The title track of that second album “For Everyman” was given a brilliant arrangement onstage early in the show. The slowly building tempo made room for a mesmerizing drone, which built to a smashing crescendo.
Greg Leisz was the standout in a band of excellent sideman, his understated mastery on the steel guitar added stellar textures on many songs.
In his lengthy introduction to the newly recorded but decades old “Birds of St. Marks” Browne described how he wanted to write a Byrds-like song, and offered it to the band without success. When he asked David Crosby to play on the recent recording, the founding member of the Byrds wisely declined, prompting Browne to concur with the wisdom of not appearing on a song essentially a tribute to the band of which Croz was a founding member. Leisz strapped on a Rickenbacker 12 string and assayed Roger McGuinn’s sound with style.
“If I Could be Anywhere” from the latest album (last autumn’s “Standing in the Breach”) fell midway through the set, and was reminiscent of Bruce Cockburn’s “Last Night of the World.” The two writers share a similar sensibility and world view (Browne has a nice blurb on Cockburn’s autobiography). Whereas Browne can cut like a knife with sharp insights into the personal and the introspective, when he broadens his view to the world around him, the results can be less poignant. Browne’s songs about the ocean’s destruction and strife in foreign lands can’t be faulted, but his turns of phrase in the context of relationships are bracing:
Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true
You were turning ’round to see who was behind you
And I took your childish laughter by surprise
And at the moment that my camera happened to find you
There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes
Now the things that I remember seem so distant and so small
Though it hasn’t really been that long a time
What I was seeing wasn’t what was happening at all
Although for a while, our path did seem to climb
The one song in Browne’s canon that perfectly balances his inward and outward view is “The Pretender,” which came toward the end of the evening. It is a deceptively upbeat song about a one-time idealist who only occasionally can reflect on how he became a plodding salaryman, “fast asleep at the traffic light.”