Jackson Browne @ Cain Park: Is This The Future or the Past that Is Calling?
For Jackson Browne, like James Taylor, a summer stop in Cleveland, Ohio is like the swallows returning to Capistrano. Throughout the ‘70s, the socially conscious singer/songwriter’s tales of hope, loss and following Running on Empty, the road became the soundtrack of sensitive souls across the Midwest.
Four decades later, Browne continues offering solace and insight with a lean musicality and a voice that is no less for the years. With a visage seemingly untouched by time, the Southern California pianist/guitarist dissolves the here and now, literally embodying his lyric “Is this the past or the future that is calling” with a nearly two hour set that drew heavily on his earliest material.
And that is the gift of music: it dissolves the here and allows the long ago to shimmer as if it were right now. During a shimmering “Rock Me On The Water,” an entire audience became 20-something, swaying to lyric “and the sisters of the sun are gonna rock me… on the water… and I’ll get down to the sea somehow.”
But what emerges isn’t mere nostalgia. Yes, the hits and best-loved album tracks live with a sense of the moment when they were discovered, but much of the evening’s canon was as resonant now as when it was created.
“Your Bright Baby Bues,” from The Pretender, is as much a song about the alienation inherent in today’s faster/harder world, as well as the inherent need to believe we are seen, especially by that one person who can save us. The exhaustion is palpable, and yet the will to connect is the far greater need.
Not that it was a night of dire songs of disappointment. Browne, a sexual avatar in a wide-eyed romantic’s frame, walked the tightrope of carnal appreciation on the dare-driven “The Naked Ride Home” and the conjectured imagination of the hand lettered strip club signed “Live Naked Cabaret.”
Conversationally confessional, the pair of songs painted pictures in praise of the female form, a bit wistful for the mysteries held within and aw struck by the beauty beheld (or imagined). It is that juxtaposition of innocence and desire that has allowed Browne’s earnestness to not overwhelm the reality of the male-female vortex.
The terrain of the human heart can be fraught. Browne’s dispatches from the plains of how it can all go so wrong sow contemplation and compassion across what many experience as frustration, acrimony and regret. In the mid-career “In The Shape of the Heart,” what was is present in both the sweetness of what was present and then the emptiness of what was gone – a reminder that whatever pain ensues, it should be tempered by the beauty of what’s been experienced.
Coming at the end of a long string of dates, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer was less political, but somehow more conversational. Wisps of where the songs came from intertwined with self-deprecating references to the years, the details of a life lived in search of songs and love and even an almost ironic engagement with a few overly worshipful fans.
Yes, there were the hits. “Doctor My Eyes,” the initial AM radio single, was present in all its jubiliant protestation of what’s been witnessed, while “Running on Empty” was delivered with a bit less urgency, but a lot more resolution to keep going while savoring the ride.
Towards the end of the set, which included vocal and fiddle punctuations from opener Sara Watkins, the amassed musicians came out for an almost euphoric romp through the Browne co-written/Eagles anthem “Take It Easy.” The freewheeling song about living too fast, seeking the pleasures to be had without crashing and burning was once a generation anthem for an easy-going hedonism; on this night, the song became a reprise of carefreedom for people weighed down by the grind, the obligations and even the uncertainty that is modern America.
Though certainly a somber voice of how life can turn, the awareness that encroaches and the lessons learned along the way, perhaps Browne’s greatest victory – beyond his Dorian Gray-inspired eternal youth – is the ability to temper that seriousness with a light that suggests even in the sadness there is much to inspire and embrace.
Rather than sink into the pool of sadness, Browne has made peaee with what is hard: never surrendering, but rather tempering the journey with the joy he finds along the way. For a committed activist, that might well be the secret, and for the sold-out crowd of 3000, it is a reminder to embrace the grace and relinquish the bitter along the way.