Interruptions Can't Derail Jackson Browne Performance at E.J. Thomas Hall

Concert Review

click to enlarge Interruptions Can't Derail Jackson Browne Performance at E.J. Thomas Hall
Mark Mindlin
Jackson Browne released Running On Empty in 1977 and it was a weary document of the life on the road that a touring musician comes to know so well. Technically, it was a “live album,” but falling in line with the subject matter that it covered, it was recorded in a variety of locations — not just onstage, but also in hotel rooms, backstage and even on the tour bus. Running On Empty emerged early in Browne’s career, so it’s interesting to think about what that same album might look like if it had been recorded today. Nearly 40 years later, Browne might have an interesting update in regards to the audiences that come to see his shows. The near-capacity crowd that filled E.J. Thomas Hall last night to see Browne last night was peppered with some fresh faces that might have been seeing their first show, but it was pretty evident that the majority of the audience members were fellow lifers who had been on board for the entire journey.

With a new album, Standing In The Breach, recently released, the new material naturally cut into the amount of catalog material that Browne was able to incorporate, and there were several fan favorites, “Call It A Loan” and “Your Bright Baby Blues,” to name a couple, that went unplayed. There’s a structured setlist for each show, but Browne, backed by an excellent band that includes guitarist Val McCallum and multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz, has been rotating songs in and out on a nightly basis to add some variety to each performance.

The newer songs themselves were well-received, particularly “You Know the Night,” a track which first emerged as a sprawling 15 minute take when it was released on a Woody Guthrie tribute a few years ago. As Browne explained, the lyrics had come from a letter that Guthrie had written to his wife about the night that they met and it was all so good that he “didn’t want to cut any of it out.” Eventually, he shared, they got it down into a more manageable “song shape” for the version that appears on the new album.

It was a good moment in the midst of an evening with Browne that was at times, pretty frustrating. In recent years, Browne has toured a lot acoustically, adopting an anything goes approach to the setlist, taking requests from the audience as they shout them out. For this tour, since he’s touring with a full band, he acknowledged from the stage in response to the flood of song requests that were audibly coming his way each time a song would finish, it’s been an “interesting time blending the shows that I do by myself with the shows I’ve been doing with the band.” He shared that “while we know a lot of songs, we don’t necessarily know the same versions of those songs,” adding that an attempt to veer from the playbook the previous evening had brought unsatisfying results.

It was one of a number of attempts that Browne made to try and let the audience know that it was not going to be the free-for-all that it had gotten used to in previous years. No matter how many different ways he tried to communicate that, the requests kept coming — often for songs that he was going to play anyway — do you really think he’s going to exit the building without playing “Running on Empty”? As a result, Browne was visibly frustrated and at least twice, abandoned a planned explanation of a song because of the interruptions from the audience. It added an unfortunate element of tension to what would have otherwise been a pleasant evening of music.

But in the end, it was the music that won out, even in the midst of all of the interruptions. The three song run of “Doctor My Eyes,” “The Pretender” and “Running On Empty” that closed out the main set were among the many reminders that Browne has accumulated a powerful catalog of work across the decades that he’s been active as an artist and E.J. Thomas Hall provided the perfect setting and acoustics to enjoy Browne’s musical highlight reel.