For a guy with the reputation as a sensitive singer-songwriter, it was the feisty side of Jackson Browne that made the difference in a stellar show on Thursday night at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts in Wilkes-Barre, PA.
The evening started off on a high note with opening act Sara Watkins, formerly of Nickel Creek and now in the midst of a burgeoning solo career. Watkins, who was joined by her brother and fellow ex-Nickel Creek member Sean Watkins, churned out a crisp nine-song set that highlighted Sara’s violin chops and underrated vocals, which ranged from dreamy and wistful on the her ukulele solo “Where Will You Be” to gritty and powerful on the rock-tinged “When It Pleases You.”
Browne and his band joined Watkins for her last two songs, the lilting “Take Up Your Spade” and a raucous cover of Willie Nelson’s “I’m a Memory.” Yet his solo set was hampered early on by a faulty microphone on opener “Black And White” and flubbed lyrics on “Standing In The Breach,” a new song written about the Haiti earthquake of 2010.
The theatre setting promoted great intimacy, but it also allowed for bozos in the audience to interrupt Browne’s stage patter with shouted requests, a practice he generally encourages but which can disrupt the flow of a show. (One yahoo kept calling for Warren Zevon songs.) After five songs, the energy was still flagging and Browne seemed to be a bit unsettled. Considering it was the tour’s second consecutive live night with a long trip from Virginia to Pennsylvania in between, things easily could have devolved from there.
After another volley of loud requests followed “Rock Me On The Water,” Browne sat at the piano and turned the mood around by saying, “There comes that point on the tour when I just snap and I don’t want to do what anybody tells me to do.” He then banged out the intro for “Doctor My Eyes,” and everybody, performers and audience, came alive, earning Jackson the first of several standing ovations.
Things really got rolling from there thanks to an unassailable set list highlighting Browne’s vast catalog, with classics like “Late For The Sky” and “The Pretender” mixed in with deeper cuts like “Something Fine” and “The Shape Of A Heart.” The singer got top-flight assistance from lead guitarist Val McCallum, and also used Watkins and her band throughout the night to expertly capture the 70’s L.A. sound of songs like “A Child In These Hills” and “The Late Show.”
In the midst of the election season, the usually outspoken Browne stayed out of the fray save for a small plug for a local progressive politician. Still, he made his subtle yet profound statement the best way possible by following up the good-time one-two punch of set closer “Running On Empty” and first encore “Take It Easy” with “Before The Deluge,” his 1974 commentary on the way that the idealism of the 60’s gave way to the complacency of the 70’s and the collateral damage caused by that transformation.
That closing song bemoans those who “exchanged love’s bright and fragile glow/For the glitter and the rouge.” It’s clear that Jackson Browne has never made that trade-off, and spirited and moving performances like the one he gave in Wilkes-Barre are a reassuring indication that he won’t be doing so any time soon.