Jackson Browne review: 50 years after his debut, America’s best singer-songwriter remains a magical presence
Few Californian singer-songwriters are as adored as Jackson Browne. Although he was born in Germany to an American serviceman, Browne has been synonymous with the golden state since the sixties. Raised in the now hip Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, he began his career as a teenager in the city’s famous folk clubs, before a short stint in New York with his lover and collaborator, Nico. He returned to Los Angeles when he was just 19 and found himself at the center of a thriving folk-rock scene that included his friends Linda Ronstadt and Glenn Frey of the Eagles. Since then, Browne’s soulful, Laurel Canyon-adjacent sound has evolved seamlessly over the decades, from swooning ’70s ballads to his ’80s rockers – not to mention a surprising experiment with reggae. Later came more socially conscious work, like his 2020 benefit album for Haiti. There are also numerous environmental initiatives and a long-standing commitment to making its tours “green”.
Tonight, he’s taking his “Evening With” show series to Santa Barbara, a quaint beach town just up the coast from Los Angeles. Browne wastes no time telling the crowd how much he loves this place. “We’ve played a lot of places on this tour,” he smiles. “They were OK, but they weren’t Santa Barbara.” It’s easy to see why he cares so much about this particular location – for the opener of his set, the moon rises behind the statuesque silver birch trees that surround the open-air stage, which has been carved into this lush hillside in the years 1930.
Wearing the same simple American uniform he’s worn for more than six decades – blue jeans and a flannel shirt – he spendss the next three hours charm the affluent crowd with endearing, off-the-cuff chatter. There are songs too, radiant and sincere. They come from his self-titled 1972 debut (“Jamaica Say You Will”, “Rock Me on the Water”, “Doctor My Eyes”) and 1974 fountain of sorrow – whose transcendent title track has long been supposed to be about his short affair with Joni Mitchell. There’s even 1980s “That Girl Could Sing,” which he remembers with a wink as being “about the first girl I ever saw driving a Jeep.”
A tender, lap-steel-assisted rendition of “These Days” — written when Browne was just 16 and covered by Nico in 1967 — makes the Santa Barbara Bowl nearly silent, while the moody break-up anthem” Late For The Sky” tugs at the heartstrings with disconcerting force. But Browne also knows how to have fun. “Take It Easy,” which he co-wrote with Frey and became one of the Eagles’ biggest hits, is introduced with an anecdote about how playing it live bothered him because everyone thought it was a cover. “Anyway,” he smiles before launching into the American classic, “here’s my Eagles cover.” After half a century of career, Jackson Browne proves that he is far from running on empty.