Au-Rene Theater, Broward Center for the Performing Arts
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Jackson Browne makes it look so easy. One could almost begrudge the fact that playing an acoustic concert that allows him to select songs on the fly is a really effortless way to earn a paycheck, and a hefty one at that. Seated on the stage of the sumptuous Au-Rene Theater and fronting a lineup of no fewer than 17 guitars that stood at the ready (the majority of which were apparently tuned but never used), Browne made a point of noting that his sets are spontaneous and never wholly planned. Instead, he noted, they were based on the vibe conveyed by the different audiences he encounters every night. Not surprisingly, then, the entire evening Browne was peppered by requests shouted out from the far reaches of the multitiered auditorium as well as notes handed to him from the first row.
Ever the charmer -- and the eternal lady's man, given that the sighs from the females were audible throughout most of the night -- Browne appeared to pay heed, casually commenting on the suggestions and offering anecdotes between most of the selections. No sooner had he finished a song before he was up and out of his chair and sauntering over to his guitar arsenal, carefully considering his next instrument of choice. Oftentimes he opted to sit at the electric piano, where he positioned himself for at least half of the two-dozen or so songs in his set. The nearly sold-out audience seemed thrilled with the majority of his choices, particularly following the intermission, when he rolled out a veritable roll call of crowd pleasers, from "For Everyman" through "Running on Empty," "Sky Blue and Black," "Rosie," "For a Dancer," and eventually culminating in what is ultimately the most requested song of the night -- and one of the few upbeat entries at that -- "Take It Easy." When he remarked that his pal Don Henley chose that tune join in an impromptu duet a few weeks earlier, Browne expressed his astonishment, and the rest of us secretly envied the fact that we hadn't been as fortunate.
The fact is, most of the material keeps to a uniformly melancholy malaise, written by a poet still in his early 20s at the time and flush with idealism even as he was attempting to balance the optimism of the '60s spirit with the hard reality that the age of innocence had begun to fracture in the face of growing responsibility, external strife, and, of course, the struggle to retain romance in a world so determined to tear it asunder. Yet Browne's songs continue to inspire despite their downcast sentiments, serving as anthems for the disenfranchised and benchmarks for an entire generation still struggling to find its way in the world. The stripped-down, bare-boned treatments -- a striking contrast to the rich arrangements accorded the studio versions -- often only hinted at the more familiar renditions and gave ample cause for the audience to fill in the missing elements on their own.
"I'm in need of a drummer," Browne confessed at one point, and the crowd offered a collective nod in agreement. At another juncture, during the sing-along chorus of "Running on Empty," the crowd offered up the obligatory shoutout "I don't know about anyone but me," which Browne was apparently ready to omit due to the constraints of singing it solo. Hearing it referenced, he smiled with amusement. Indeed, after two consecutive South Florida appearances playing solo (he last played Miami Beach's Fillmore in the same manner), it would be nice to catch him next time with a band in tow.
Browne later referred to the fact that the show is in fact generally open-ended, a seemingly effortless performance that embraces about two dozen songs (including the two saved for the encore), all of which suggests he barely works up a sweat. (For the record, he sat the entire time save approximately 30 seconds when he briefly stood in deference to the rocking refrain of "Take It Easy" before quickly retaking his chair. "So is there any difference between hearing these songs here or hearing them in my house?" he asked rhetorically. "Here I'm less likely to stop in the middle of a song to get up and make myself a sandwich."
Remarkably, though, however off-handed, Browne has lost none of the youthful timbre that continues to characterize his vocals. Listening to some bootlegs of concerts recorded early on in his career during our drive to the show, it's striking to note how much he sounds the same, and for that matter, how little his approach has changed over the past 40 years. Browne is the Dorian Gray of rock 'n' roll, and watching him from the back rows of the lower orchestra, he still seems to closely resemble that youthful minstrel with the pageboy hairdo that graced the cover of his eponymous debut. For a man of 62, he gives the men in his audience -- most of whom are approaching the same age -- reason for both envy and astonishment.
Personal bias: While Browne took pains to cover every era of his career, there was some disappointment that he didn't include such standards as "Jamaica, Say You Will," Rock Me On the Water," "These Days," and my wife Alisa's favorite, "The Loud Out/Stay."
Random detail: Browne not only glanced frequently at the written requests he had been handed but he also carried them offstage. Perhaps he'll use the suggestions for upcoming shows.
By the way: Only Jackson Browne can play a sprawling theater like the Au-Rene and still make it seem like an intimate performance.