Few singer/songwriters are as well-respected and beloved as Jackson Browne. The longtime California resident has been the envy of his peers and descendents since before his first album came out in 1972, back when other people were recording his songs and wondering when he’d become a star himself. His catalog of classic songs speaks for itself, and his latest album Downhill From Nowhere, as well-crafted and heartfelt as any he’s ever made, proves his work as potent now as it’s ever been. So we were excited to have him back on the show, nearly twenty years after his first appearance back in 2002.
Taking the stage to a standing ovation from the eager crowd, the silver-bearded Browne and his eight-piece band (all of whom played on the new record) opened the show with “I’m Alive,” an anthem of moving on from past sorrows that doubles as a reminder of his presence and prowess. “We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” Browne noted, before visiting Downhill From Everywhere for “Still Looking For Something,” paying tribute to the journey rather than the destination. Browne stayed in searching mode with the folk rocking “The Long Way Around,” leading him back to his past. “Fountain of Sorrow,” from 1974’s Late For the Sky, rocked the house and allowed guitarist Val McCallum to contribute an appropriately epic solo. Browne and the band kept the energy level high with the title track of Downhill From Everywhere, an environmentally-charged rocker with a classic descending melody and gospel fervor from singer/organist Jeff Young. They stuck with the new record for “My Cleveland Heart,” the optimistic single about trading in our breakable human heart for a resilient, artificial replacement, on which Browne shares the vocals with McCallum and the riffs with steel guitarist Greg Leisz. That organ continued to occupy the stage when Browne went into “In the Shape of a Heart,” one of his most poignant and beautiful songs.
Browne brought backup singers Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart to the front for “The Dreamer,” a bilingual song paying tribute to people brought to the U.S. as children and now facing deportation that earned plenty of cheers. It’s one of the new record’s most powerful tunes, both because of its topical lyrics and its Latin groove. The trio kept the themes of social justice going with the rollicking “Until Justice is Real,” another strong Everywhere track. Browne then went from the latest to the earliest with “These Days,” originally recorded in the sixties by both the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Nico (years (before Browne himself put it on his 1973 album For Everyman), and a song that holds up nicely over fifty years since its conception. Then it was back to Everywhere for the duet “A Human Touch,” for which Browne brought on co-writer and singer Leslie Mendelson, who sang it on the record. The songwriter then took to the piano for “Doctor My Eyes,” his first hit and another stone cold classic with another blazing solo from McCallum and a standing O from the audience. Browne stayed with the keyboard for the gorgeous “Late For the Sky,” still a masterpiece of tunesmithery.
The way to follow up a song that good is with more classics: the beautifully melodic anthem “The Pretender” and the driving rocker “Running On Empty,” both of which earned wild crowd applause. Leisz, McCallum and pianist Jason Crosby traded solos before Young led the band into incorporating the Spencer Davis Group nugget “Gimme Some Lovin’.” The band brought the original tune crashing down to a massive response from the crowd. The musicians left the stage, but there was no way they weren’t coming back. They did, of course, with “Take It Easy,” the Eagles staple that many forget Browne co-wrote – “Sing it so Glenn Frey can hear you,” the singer exclaimed. That song segued seamlessly into For Everyman’s wistful “Our Lady of the Well,” with round robin solos from McCallum, Leisz, Crosby, Young, bassist Bob Glaub (who’s been with Browne for over forty years), Mills and Stewart and handclaps from the audience.
The band once again quit the stage, but Browne returned to the piano. This is a song that turns the tradition of the encore on its head,” he said. This is where we ask you for an encore.” Then he rang out the familiar chords to “The Load Out,” his classic song commemorating both the end of a show and the hardworking crew that keep bands on the road. The musicians returned to the stage by the second verse, and, as on the record, the song went straight into Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ doo-wop classic “Stay.” Mills and Young shared the vocals with Browne, before the audience itself took a chorus, singing loud and proud. “Stay!” they yelled, turning the song into a call-and-response with the band. “Come one come on come on – stay,” Browne and the singers (now including Mendelson), as the song came casually to a close. Bringing down the house once again, that was the end of a show for the ACL ages. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.