On a night when the echoes of Robin Williams’s death steadily trickled down through the Artpark Mainstage Theater, Jackson Browne’s doleful performance of “Song for Adam” nearly became a cross too arduous to bear. While he himself may not have heard the news, the audience had, and they responded to a track they’d heard a million times before as if it were being delivered as a eulogy for a close friend.
It didn’t help that the inspiration for the song, Adam Saylor, may have committed suicide just as Williams did, because what was already a sensitive subject assumed greater consequence once Browne sang the line, “Now this story unfolds before my candle/Which is shorter every hour as it reaches for the day.”
The fact is that both Saylor and Williams departed this life prematurely, and the same philosophical dilemmas and inner torment facing Browne back during the song’s construction were now attaching themselves to everyone else given what transpired earlier in the day.
Tears were shed, reminiscence ensued, and a subconscious pledge was made between artist and audience guaranteeing that nothing, not even the most devastating sideswipe from the outside world, was going to prevent them from consuming moment after celestial moment of much-needed musical catharsis.
And boy did Browne hold up his end of the bargain.
Operating from a position accompanied by only his piano and buffet of acoustic guitars, the 66-year-old legend of Laurel Canyon bypassed the usual pomp and circumstance of a live encounter to cut right to the heart of why we all gathered in the first place.
He dove head-first into “I’ll Do Anything,” “Rock Me on the Water,” and “Looking Into You” without wasting a second of stage time, which appeared to be his subtle way of saying that this wasn’t an evening anyone could properly breathe in from behind the silhouette of a mobile device. One had to disentangle themselves from the technological stranglehold just enough to be taken in by Browne’s understated mastery of the form, because the reward for doing so was something that staring at pictures of your junior high classmate’s second child or completing Level 181 of Candy Crush Saga could never give you.
Everyone has a songwriter whose words are capable of inducing malarial chills from the opening note, and, as Monday’s tour-de-force proved, Clyde Jackson Browne fits that bill for me. Whenever it feels like the walls are closing in or my professional ambitions are caught in the ether, all I need is to drop the needle on either “Late for the Sky” or “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate” to lift my spirits and kick-start my creative resurgence.
I spent the majority of the first set in a heightened state of awareness, because every selection demonstrated his flair for shifting from optimism to naturalism while sustaining the intensity of the original arrangements. He’s just as comfortable rocking out during “Doctor My Eyes” and “Somebody’s Baby” as he is looking inward for the soul-baring truths uncovered in “The Barricades of Heaven” and “Fountain of Sorrow.”
Watching him pinball his way through five decades worth of material on the fly was astounding and a testament to his greatness. Whenever someone shouted out a request, he was willing to accommodate regardless of how far back into the vault it required him to go.
His agility was tested early and often, and I don’t think anyone would have gone home disappointed had the show ended after the first 11 songs.
Thankfully, Browne wasn’t leaving until every last card was on the table.
“For a Dancer,” “Sky Blue and Black,” “The Pretender” and an antagonistic spin on Steven Van Zandt’s “I Am a Patriot” all stood tall in the second half, leaving only the ethereal elegance of “Our Lady of the Well” and “Before the Deluge” to lock things up at the end.
You’ll often hear people ponder whether a band or artist is still relevant years after the commercial well has run dry, but I think that’s ridiculous. All it takes is one person deriving sustenance from a particular body of work to make its creator’s philosophy a living, breathing part of the lexicon, and, as long as humans continue to be “caught between the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender,” Jackson Browne will never go out of style.