Jackson Browne (who knew his first name is Clyde???) as our music writer Christie Marcy pointed out, wrote the sound track for the seventies, a decade which everyone who lived in wishes was the sixties. So, he was part of the sound track of my youth. A tricky subject.
I’m a food and wine writer, not a music writer. But sometimes time trumps expertise so I was SLmag’s designated hitter at Red Butte last night where Browne and his incredibly competent band played an unusual two-act show—no opener, just a 15-minute intermission.
This was a silver-back crowd; chardonnay was out in full force. But we squeezed our blanket into a space next to a 17-year-old redhead. She was there with her parents, Australians who were in SLC for the USANA-fest and she had been raised listening to Jackson Browne. They were sitting back on the VIP terrace but she wanted to sit up close.
At 7:36, Brown said hello, slid onto a piano bench and commenced playing “Rock me on the Water.”
At 7:40, the crowd put down their wineglasses and started batting around a beachball.
From there, the band went on to play stuff from the new album, Standing in the Breach, interspersed with singalong oldies like “Fountain of Sorrow,” a lovely lyric covered by Joan Baez on Diamonds and Rust, one of the most poignantly nostalgic albums ever.
And that’s the heart of Jackson Browne: So many of his songs have a yearning melody at their core, highly hummable, easy to song along with (to the 8-track in your car) with plenty of the creeping country twang that finally came out of rock ‘n roll’s closet in the 70s, spreading from the folk clubs in Browne’s SoCal home and the boot-scooting bars in Austin to everywhere else.
In the 70s, his perfect lyrics ached with a nostalgia for a past that hadn’t yet happened, the gestalt emotion at that time. It turns out, it was nostalgia for a past that never happened. Say a prayer for the pretenders, captured in Clyde’s song of the same name.
We were all so much older then; we’re younger than that now.
Browne himself is still the lean Southern California folksinger guy—gaunt but more groomed than a hippie, occupying his slightly uncomfortable place on the spectrum between Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, and verging into Huey Lewis when he slips into the commercialism he’s capable of but lyrically eschews. He’s an old-school pro, moving easily from piano to several guitars and back again and giving affectionate credit to his bandmates.
Still, an occasional chord makes you think, if things had gone a little bit wrong, Jackson Browne could be playing piano in a motel lounge. If things had gone a little bit right, his audience would be living off the grid instead of driving BMW SUVs.
Browne’s youthful plaintiveness has matured into political statement. That’s happened to a lot of us. Instead of singing about hitchhiking out of Winslow, Arizona, Browne is bemoaning the environmental devastation caused by by fossil fuels. Oddly, his lyrics sound more optimistic now. Standing in the Breach says in the title track, “You don’t know why, but you still try/For the world you wish to see.”
Last night at Red Butte, the well-heeled audience (Red Butte tickets are not inexpensive; this is not a hoi-polloi venue) danced along to “The Pretender,” the anthem of the aging middle class before they were aging or middle class. That album came out in 1976, the year I left Austin. How did he know we would all become pretenders, “caught between the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender?” Why don’t we care that we did? The—can I use the word poignant again?—contrast between the listeners’ memories conjured by the songs and the present reality was painful.
But the response to Browne’s music seemed to rekindle the idealism of youth—surprising the singer, who seemed almost bemused by the enthusiasm of the audience as they sang along and raised their hands in time with lyrics from the new album, “You know the change the world needs now/Is there, in everyone.” And the band responded to the audience’s energy with more passionate playing.
We were his audience all along. He’s always been singing “For Everyman.”