Talking about Jackson Browne is sort of talking about the history of American music itself. While the peak of his career is years, maybe even decades behind him, you would be hard pressed to turn on the radio and not hear one of his songs playing back out at you. In the 70’s and 80’s he was a prolific recording artist releasing no less than seven multi-platinum albums that yielded such hits as “The Pretender”, “Tender Is The Night”, “You Love The Thunder” and “Running On Empty”, a song that for many, perfectly encapsulated the “innocence” of the 70’s as it began its slow decline into the everything overload that was the 80’s.
Add to that the fact that he penned tracks like The Eagles mega hit “Take It Easy”, Nico’s depressively cool rumination “These Days” and had a lifelong working relationship with Warren Zevon, and it’s easy to see why the title of “legend” that most would lay upon him is as irrefutable as it is deserved. So it was appropriate that Browne would choose Wolf Trap for a stop on his current tour because after all, Wolf Trap is where the legends come to play.
Opening the show for Browne was the talented multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter/Nickel Creek Alumni Sara Watkins. Watkins who has been out on the road for close to half the year in support of her latest effort Sun Midnight Sun. Along with brother Sean – also a Nickel Creek alumni – Watkins honey sweet voice and even sweeter demeanor quickly won over the crowd as they filed in for the main act. Make no mistake though, on tracks like “Take Up Your Spade”, a fiery “When It Pleases You” and a duet with Browne on the lilting “You and Me”, Watkins and crew demonstrated the multitude of reasons they were tapped for this opening slot. At age 31 Watkins is already an industry veteran and it showed in the strength of her performance.
After a brief intermission, the stage lights came up as Browne seated himself at the piano and eased into the opening strains of “Black and White” from 1986’s Lives In The Balance. The audience shouted requests in the quiet moments as Browne navigated the waters of his forty year deep catalog. Catcalls too. “We love you Jackson!” could be heard almost as often as “You’re still hot Jackson!” as the mostly middle aged crowd hung on each and every note that the man who had likely provided the soundtrack to their youths was giving them. The performance was as much a love fest as it was a history lesson.
As the evening wore on, members of Watkins band began to appear on stage, with Watkins herself singing backup on guitarist Val McCallum’s “Tokyo Girl” – a song which Browne graciously insisted that the group play – ultimately bringing together the two groups en totem to create one giant Jackson Browne Band. Sit-ins were to be expected, but it is a testament to talent of the members of both groups that the two could mesh so well. By the time they hit a set closing “Running On Empty” followed up be a raucous encore of “Take It Easy” complete with traded solos and a mid song jam, it was a little unclear why the musicians hadn’t just played the whole set in this configuration, but either way it was a spectacular end to a spectacular evening of music.
While some legends are that in name only, Jackson Browne still not only delivers the goods, but his passion for performing is evident every moment that he is on a stage. So he hasn’t had a hit in a decade. A musician’s job isn’t to have hits – that’s mostly out of their control. No, a musician’s job is to write and play music, and these days, there’s still just about nobody better at doing just that than Jackson Browne.