Jackson Browne Sings of AIDS-Era Compassion With 'A Human Touch' for Beacon Theatre Crowd in New York

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Carl Scheffel
Jackson Browne performs at the Beacon Theater on June 26, 2019 in New York.

The songs of Jackson Browne have always gone right to the heart, whether describing a lover's touch, a migrant's dream or an environmentalist's lament. For five decades now, his music has passionately and plaintively connected the inner-life and the wider world.

Browne's fans packed the third of his four sold-out shows at New York's Beacon Theatre on Wednesday in unabashed devotion to this singular artist. In turn, the now-bearded singer gave them both a rich and resonant evening of classics, and also performed a just-released new single, "A Human Touch," that is very much of the moment.

With New York preparing for this weekend's celebration of WorldPride 2019, a more harrowing era in queer history is captured in the new documentary 5B, "about the first AIDS ward in San Francisco," said Browne. He introduced "A Human Touch" as a song from the film and welcomed his co-writer Leslie Mendelson to sing it with him. (Steve McEwan shares co-writing credit.) The song's lyrics serve the story of 5B, named for a ward at San Francisco General Hospital, which created then-unique AIDS care based on what a head nurse once called "love and basic human sharing."

Love and sharing, of both joys and sorrow, are constant themes in Browne's lyrics. Wednesday's show opened with the emotionally defiant "I'm Alive," with its image of a man "rolling down California five," grieving for love lost -- but moving on.

It was immediately clear that Browne's band -- Greg Leisz on guitar and lap steel, Val McCallum on guitar, Jeff Young on keyboards, super-session bassist Bob Glaub, drummer Mauricio Lewak and vocalists Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart -- is one of the best he's ever played with.

Browne joked about the random pacing of his set as he introduced, as his second number, one of his earliest and most successful songs, co-written by Glenn Frey and recorded by the Eagles: "Take It Easy."

Then "into the cool of the evening" came "The Pretender," three hits in a row. "I come out here swinging for the fences," joked Browne, describing the challenge of playing the same theater for four consecutive nights.

The evening began with opening act Lucius, the charming vocal duo of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig. A fan of the pair, Browne came out during their set to harmonize with them on Lowell George's "Willin'."

During Browne's own set, there was a delightful warmth and looseness to the evening. Amid the calls for requests, one fan seized a quiet moment to shout "Free Bird!" Said Browne, "You know, the funny thing is, that's still funny."

While Browne declined to play Lynyrd Skynyrd's signature song, his set list spanned his career: the melancholy and beautiful "These Days" from 1973's For Everyman, 1977's great road song "Running on Empty," the punchy "Tender Is the Night" from 1983's Lawyers in Love, the top 10 hit "Somebody's Baby" from 1982, "The Long Way Around" from 2014's Standing in the Breach, his most recent studio album, and more.

The show hit a turning point as Browne sang "The Dreamer," which he recorded in 2017 with Eugene Rodriguez and Los Cenzontles, describing the threat of deportation facing immigrants. He welcomed singers Mills and Stewart to the front of the stage for "Lives in the Balance" and they added a verse and a cry to "heal the wounds of history." Browne then introduced "Walls and Bridges," his adaptation of a song by the Cuban singer/songwriter Carlos Varela. "There are those who build walls/ And those who open doors," he sang.

Browne's love of Latin music and culture might well be rooted in his boyhood, when his family lived in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, which was just then becoming a Mexican enclave. (Although his family moved from the area when he was 12, Browne's father attended nearby Occidental College, which gave Jackson an honorary doctorate in 2004 for "a remarkable musical career that has successfully combined an intensely personal artistry with a broader vision of social change and justice.")

"Doctor My Eyes" brought Browne back to his remarkable 1972 debut album and a reminder of the emotional toll of engaging both the inner-life and the wider world: "I have done all that I could/ To see the evil and the good without hiding," he sang.

For all of his own extraordinary talent as a songwriter, Browne has never hesitated to bring forth the work of others. "It's a good time to be singing this song," he told the crowd, introducing Steve Earle's "City of Immigrants."

On the day of this show, the news brought the heartbreaking image of a migrant father and daughter, with his shirt protectively wrapped around her, both face down, drowned in the waters of the Rio Grande River, as they sought refuge in the United States.

"And the river opens for the righteous/ And the river opens for the righteous," intoned Browne, as he led his band, the members of Lucius and the audience into his closing song, "I Am A Patriot," written by Steven Van Zandt.

"I ain't no communist/ I ain't no capitalist," he sang, then riffed: "I ain't no climate denier/ I ain't no family separator."

And, for some in the audience, the image of that father and daughter came to mind, as Browne sang the song's most stinging lyric: "We can't turn our backs this time."


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