Running on Full: Jackson Browne’s Tribute Album Is the Best Funeral an Artist Could Ever Ask For
When a musician is graced with a tribute album when he or she is alive, it’s got to be a little like attending one’s own funeral. Yet only the most humble of us wouldn’t want to see who shows up to say what when our earthly days end. And if the roster of artists on Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne is any indication, the mop-topped troubadour ranks among popular music’s greatest songwriters, living or dead.
Tribute albums are a polarizing species, and can typically be divided into several subsets. There’s the tribute to a famous artist by a bunch of lesser-known musicians, then there’s the tribute album that’s chockablock with stars. As for the music itself, there are renditions that stay extremely faithful to their originals, and dramatic reinterpretations which veer into the sonic hinterlands.
Looking Into You is the rare tribute album which contains all of these elements–and everything in between. It’s a 23-track double-disc, with zero flotsam. Longtime Browne collaborators Don Henley and JD Souther bookend the album with deft versions of “These Days” and “My Opening Farewell.” Sandwiched between them are, among others: Bonnie Raitt, Bob Schneider, The Indigo Girls, Lyle Lovett (twice), Ben Harper, Keb’ Mo’, Lucinda Williams, Marc Cohn, Sara & Sean Watkins (who provide backing vocals on tracks other than their own), Bruce Springsteen & Patti Scialfa, Shawn Colvin, Bruce Hornsby and Joan Osborne.
The artists who stay most faithful to Browne’s originals are lesser-known artists like Jimmy LaFave (“For Everyman”), Paul Thorn (“Doctor My Eyes”), Eliza Gilkyson (“Before the Deluge”), Venice (“For A Dancer”), Kevin Welch (“Looking Into You”) and Griffin House (“Barricades of Heaven). And that’s perfectly fine; enough of their more famous contributors chart unique enough courses to where their loyalty forms a nougat-like core.
There are musicians on this record, chief among them Bonnie Raitt (“Everywhere I Go,” with David Lindley) and Lucinda Williams (“The Pretender”), whose stylistic imprint on Browne’s tunes are recognizable from the very first notes. Clocking at six-and-a-half minutes, Williams gorgeously rearranges one of Browne’s signature tracks as a haunting, winding, blue highway; it’s of a piece with Essence, and features Doug Pettibone to boot (and the use of mellotron is an ingenious touch). Similarly, Bob Schneider intentionally rips the knees out of “Running on Empty,” the result being a spare, melancholic ballad which accentuates the more uncomfortably personal moments in the life of an on-the-go Lothario.
But the clear standout of the record is the Watkins’ siblings (of Nickel Creek fame) rendition of “Your Bright Baby Blues.” Like Williams and Schneider, they slow the tempo by at least a third, adding only acoustic guitar to the first verse before layering on–in methodical succession–drums, bass, organ and electric guitar. Sara Watkins possesses one of the most vulnerable voices in Americana, and here it really rips your heart out. If you’ve ever cried for anything, or anyone, this song will have you instantly revisiting those emotions. It’s the closing processional in homage to Browne’s incredible career.