Very early into his set at the Paramount last night, Jackson Browne thanked the capacity crowd for putting up with the video cameras stationed in the balcony, at the exits and on the stage. A live concert special for AXS TV was being filmed, Browne explained, adding that the band had put together a rare set list for the occasion. "This whole tour we haven't had much of a set list," he said before promising that the show wouldn't feel too stiff or formal as a result. He didn't disappoint -- the two-hour performance boasted a spur-of-the-moment spirit. Browne and his band played obscure B-sides along with well-known hits; several times, he veered from the set list to play requests from vocal audience members. The casual approach made for a completely compelling evening of music.
Browne didn't waste any time in doing away with the normal formalities of a typical Paramount show. Before Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins and Tyler Chester kicked off the opening set, Browne emerged on stage, wearing an easy grin and offering early thanks to the milling crowd for their attendance. He set the mood before he played a note, and it was a genuine and heartfelt tone that would mark the entire evening. That's not to say Browne's performance was sloppy or understudied. The twenty-song performance included selections from all phases of the musician's forty-year career.
Switching between piano and a selection of about fifteen acoustic guitars (all arrayed in neat rows on stage), Browne drew support from a revolving cadre of five musicians. Along with Sara and Sean Watkins and Tyler Chester, guitarist Val McCullum and drummer Fritz Lewak added different degrees of instrumentation and contours to classic Browne tunes. At its heart, however, the performance stayed pretty well rooted in Browne's signature sound elements. His tenor voice was as calm and implacable as ever. His approach on the guitar was rooted in alternate tunings and his measured piano style was steady and straightforward. The elements were all there from the first strains of the opening songs, "Black and White," "I'm Alive" and "Call It a Loan," a song written with David Lindley.
It only took Browne a short time to take a break from the set boundaries of the prearranged song list. As he picked up one of his many acoustic guitars and prepared to launch into the song after "Call It a Loan," an audience member called for "Farther On." Browne stopped, brought the guitar back to the stand and took up a seat behind the piano to accommodate the request. "I'm drawn to doing songs we haven't been doing, just to see if I get through them," Browne explained after the spot-on rendition.
A mix of familiar and obscure followed. Browne referenced the recent presidential election before launching into "Looking East," the title song from his 1996 album that demands, "How long have I left my mind to the powers that be? How long will it take to find the higher power moving in me?" Browne broke out a nylon string guitar for "Live Nude Cabaret," a tune that benefited from Sara Watkins' consummate skill on the fiddle.
While the crowd was reverent for the first four or five songs, the fever pitch ramped up to another level at the first strains of "The Pretender." The tune from the 1976 album of the same name seemed to set a more intense tone for the rest of the night -- every song after earned standing ovations from at least a small part of the crowd. Even a momentary break from Browne's catalogue for a performance of Val McCullum's original tune "Tokyo Girl" brought hoots and hollers from the audience. Browne's understated rendition of "These Days" had a similar effect.
The band's chemistry seemed to ramp up as the audience kept rising to their feet. Older songs like "The Late Show" and "I'll Do Anything" earned a sing-along chorus. A trio of backup vocals from the Watkins and McCullum at the line "I can hear the angels sing" offered a standout moment from the performance of "I'll Do Anything," which was a highlight of the evening.
By the time the band broke into an explosive version of "Running On Empty" to end the main set, no one in the front of the house bothered to sit down again. Two encores followed, short sets that included "Take It Easy," a song Browne co-wrote with Glenn Frey of the Eagles, as well as another audience request granted by Browne in the form of a piano performance of "Rock Me On the Water." A lengthy version of "Before the Deluge" served as the entire second encore, and the lines "Now let the music keep our spirits high/And let the buildings keep our children dry/Let creation reveal its secrets by and by" felt like a closing benediction of sorts.
But even those final words kept an air of spontaneity. Like the rest of the show, Browne managed to say farewell to the crowd with a casual ease, a light touch that made the lofty halls of the Paramount Theatre feel more like a backyard jam session.
Personal Bias: Hearing radio favorites like "The Pretender" and "Running On Empty" in all their live glory was pretty damn amazing.
Random Note: Browne explained the justification for having fifteen guitars on stage before breaking into "In the Shape of a Heart." "Various songs live in these guitars," he said, referring to the instruments' different tunings. "(They're) not solely to strike envy into the hearts of guitar aficionados."
By The Way: Sara Watkins' vocal prowess and skill on the fiddle is jaw-dropping. It's a talent the Nickel Creek alum showed in a powerful opening set, a performance that included an original tune by Sean Watkins and a range of stylistic approaches from Sara.
Jackson Browne Paramount Theatre - 11/15/12 Denver, CO
1. "Black and White" 2. "I'm Alive" 3. "Call It a Loan" 4. "Farther On" 5. "The Naked Ride Home" 6. "Looking East" 7. "Live Nude Cabaret" 8. "Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate" 9. "The Pretender" 10. "A Child in These Hills" 11. "Tokyo Girl" 12. "These Days" 13. "In the Shape of a Heart" 14. "The Late Show" 15. "I'll Do Anything" 16. "Running on Empty"
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17. "Take It Easy" 18. "For a Dancer" 19. "Rock Me On the Water"
Second Encore 20. "Before the Deluge"