“So, we’ve been having some strange weather,” Jackson Browne remarked to his audience early in his Beacon Theatre performance Tuesday — the first of a four-night stand at the New York venue. “I mean, the entire world is having strange weather.”
His comments introduced “Downhill From Everywhere,” a song whose montage of images place a neglected ocean at the center of a distracted and troubled world. It is the title track of the masterful 2021 album from this beloved singer/songwriter who, among many other things, has been on the front lines of climate activism for decades.
Further on in his set, Browne brought forth his 1974 classic “Before the Deluge,” singing of dreamers on “the brave and crazy wings of youth” who were “angry at the way the earth was abused” — who nonetheless responded with the call: “Let the music keep our spirits high.”
These songs, recorded decades apart, were just two highlights of Browne’s joyous return to one of the singer’s favorite venues, in a year that marks the 50th anniversary of his debut album. “I love the Beacon,” said Browne — despite contracting COVID-19 previously at the hall, he acknowledged. His affection extended to the city outside. “I just dig how resilient New York is,” he said.
Dressed in black and sporting a gray beard that he has grown in recent years, Browne looked even more the part of a spiritual music master — guiding his listeners through both mysteries of the heart and the turmoil of a troubled world.
From the bright pop of Tuesday’s opening song, “Somebody’s Baby,” to the closing encore of “Load Out” and “Stay” (the latter a fitting tribute to the resilience of touring musicians at this stage in the pandemic), Browne and his eight-piece band looked back with reflection and ahead with optimism.
Here are five moving moments from Browne’s Tuesday night show.
Tapping the cultural mood
A media study in June found that some 38% of Americans say they often or sometimes avoid the news nowadays. Browne tapped that zeitgeist a decade ago in “The Long Way Around,” which he performed early in Tuesday’s set. “It’s a little hard keeping track of what’s gone wrong,” he sang. “The covenant unravels and the news just rolls along/ I could feel my memory letting go/ Some two or three disasters ago.”
So clear and so bright
In 2004, when Bruce Springsteen inducted his friend Browne into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he said: “In ’70s post-Vietnam America, there was no album that captured the fall from Eden, the long, slow afterburn of the ’60s, its heartbreak, its disappointments, its spent possibilities, better than Jackson’s masterpiece Late for the Sky.” Browne recognizes the enduring power of that work and offered no fewer than four songs from that 1974 album, from the lover “smiling so clear and so bright” in “Fountain of Sorrow,” to “Before the Deluge,” to the album’s title track, and “For a Dancer” — which contains perhaps the most moving lyric ever written about the death of a friend. “I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round/ Crying as they ease you down/ Because I know you’d rather we were dancing/ Dancing our sorrow away.”
How the pandemic changed a ballad
When Browne performed at the Beacon Theatre in 2019, he introduced a new song, “A Human Touch,” co-written by Leslie Mendelson and Steve McEwan. It was composed for a documentary about the San Francisco General Hospital AIDS ward during the 1980s — and the bravery and devotion of the doctors and nurses who cared for the sick in those years. Onstage Tuesday, Browne brought out Mendelson to duet on the song. Certainly there was more than one member of the audience who said a last farewell to a loved one during the pandemic, without the blessing of a human touch. And this ballad became a fresh tribute to the medical caregivers of the past two-plus years.
Running on a full tank
A Jackson Browne concert does not lack for wonderfully reflective music. As he performed a heartfelt “These Days,” you could not help but marvel at how a very young man had first written this world-weary meditation. But this veteran of Southern California’s freeways also has no hesitation to rock out.
And Browne is touring with an extraordinary band that allows him to do so: bassist Bob Glaub (who goes all the way back to the sessions for The Pretender); drummer Mauricio Lewak; organist Jeff Young; pianist Jason Crosby, who doubled on violin; backup singers Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart; and guitarists Val McCallum and Greg Leisz, who also played pedal and lap steel.
In sound that was powerful and crisp from the front rows of the orchestra to the upper balcony (this writer checked), Browne led this ensemble through some of his most riveting, upbeat songs: “Rock Me on the Water,” his cover of Steven Van Zandt’s “I Am a Patriot,” “You Love the Thunder,” “Redneck Friend,” a gospel-like “Doctor My Eyes,” and the set-closing “Running on Empty.”
Reviving a classic song — and segue
“I didn’t sing this song for many years,” Browne began, describing the co-writing sessions he’d had with his late friend and onetime neighbor Glenn Frey, which led to a monster hit for Frey’s band the Eagles (and the suggestion that Browne was covering that band’s song). But for the show’s penultimate encore, Browne beautifully reclaimed “Take It Easy” as an exuberant call to “lighten up while you still can.”
But there was more. As the closing chords of “Take It Easy” swirled in the night, Brown and the band segued into “Our Lady of the Well.” It was a delightful musical juxtaposition that first appeared on Browne’s recording of those songs, on his sophomore album, For Everyman, and it is imprinted on the aural memories of countless fans. It was as if Browne sought to give a knowing gift to those who have traveled with him along the road all these years.