Jackson Browne

An Appreciation

Jackson Browne was my favorite singer/songwriter of the ‘70s – The Decade of the Singer/Songwriter – and both he and his songs have aged well, as his sold-out concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl on August 3, 2018 proved again and again. I can’t think of ever having a more comfortable and pleasurable concert experience.

Part of the evening’s special character was the artist’s identification with his audience and venue. Although he lives out of town, up the coast, he treated Santa Barbara as home, reminiscing about playing in the Bowl back in 1969 and suggesting that the audience was full of high-school friends. Wearing glasses and casual clothes, with long hair that hadn’t recently seen a brush, he was mellow and we were mellow, and oh so appreciative.

There was nothing casual about the set or the seven supporting instrumentalists and singers. Jackson switched effortlessly between guitar and piano, and his voice was strong and warm. He moved through his catalogue, almost half of the 23 numbers dating to the ‘70s, and only one new song, the topical The Dreamer. He went onstage right at 7:00 and warmed us up with good, not great, songs as the crowd settled in and the sun went down: That Girl Could Sing, You Love the Thunder, Sky Blue and Black. For his eighth number he went back to his eponymous first album, which we all mistakenly called Saturate Before Using, for Doctor My Eyes, which got everyone on their feet, dancing (as Paul Thorn had done last month at his Lobero concert). These Days, For A Dancer and For Everyman followed, powerfully, with the drum crescendo of the last sending us off to intermission on a high.

The break was 15 minutes, exactly as promised, and we started rocking again with Somebody’s Baby and it didn’t stop. Warren Zevon’s Lawyers, Guns and Money was an unexpected treat, but you knew what you were getting when he sat down to play The Pretender and then brought down the house with Running on Empty. For his encore he said, “I first heard this song just like you did, on my car radio. Let’s all sing it loud enough for Glenn to hear…’Well, I’m running down the road, trying to loosen my load’…”

What memories!

 

Death is always sad, but when you’re in your 20s it has an epic, even Romantic edge. James Dean, Kurt Cobain, Buddy Holly – lives cut short – and then there is your high school classmate who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. What is it all about?

When Jackson Browne lost a friend in his early 20s, the first death he’d felt personally, he expressed these emotions in one of his greatest songs, “For A Dancer.” Forty-five years later, he still regularly sings the song and, as he did at this concert, tells about his friend David, who was a wonderful dancer – and also a tailor who made his own clothes.

He so briefly makes his friend a real person in the first verse: “You were always dancing in and out of view…Always keeping things real by playing the clown.” He then comes right out with the honest declaration: “I don’t know what happens when people die/Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try.” He addresses the uncertainty of life: “You never know what will be coming down. Perhaps a better world is drawing near/And just as easily it could all disappear…Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around.” The final lines are, to me, among the most thoughtful in rock: “And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go/May lie a reason you were alive but you’ll never know.”

I still don’t know. But when I go I want the funeral home (?) to play a mix of songs that have meant something to me over my life. This will be one of them.

 

 

Natalie Merchant

From the moment she started singing at the Bowl Saturday night, you knew Natalie Merchant still had one of the greatest, if not the greatest, female voices in rock (not that she admits to being a rock singer). With the power of a foghorn, the timbre of an oboe, her voice is a musical instrument; and the inclusion of a string quartet in the second half of her program reflected her own recognition of that comparison. (Her scheduled appearance with actual symphony orchestras on a 2011 tour, including a performance I was scheduled to see in Minneapolis until a lockout canceled the Minnesota Orchestra season, was even greater evidence.)

Unfortunately, her personal appearance and performance, like that of an orchestra cellist, didn’t add much to the sound. No longer young or sexy or waiflike, she dressed like a librarian and her moves, mostly twirling around, made me think she thought she was Stevie Nicks, but she wasn’t.

Her song selection was mostly pleasant, only occasionally stirring, and could have used more 10,000 Maniacs material, which is what the crowd was anticipating. On too many songs there were long bridges between vocals, which left us to watch her wandering around, instrument-less, onstage. In addition, she had a self-described “summer cold,” and the sight of her snorting nasal spray between songs was a bit of buzzkill. Spontaneous joy was in short supply, provided mainly by her guitarist, Gabriel.

In sum, the show was a good listen, but I never found myself caught up in the crowd’s enthusiasm.

[Santa Barbara Bowl, July 15, 2017]

Joan Baez

What a privilege to spend 90 minutes listening to Joan Baez from the second row of the Arlington Theater (thank you, UCSB Arts & Lectures)! With appropriate song and still-beautiful voice and brief but intimate introductions, she took us back to 1959 coffee houses in Harvard Square and before, up through the draft-resistance and anti-war movement and into the present with her black T-shirt that read “Nasty Woman” on the front and “No DAPL” [Dakota Access Pipeline] on the back. The musical itinerary covered Paul Robeson and a Marian Anderson spiritual; Pete Seeger and a Woody Guthrie anthem relevant today (“Deportees”); her own Prison Trilogy and Diamonds and Rust, both also still relevant; nods to modern songwriters Tom Waits, Richard Thompson and, less successful, Josh Ritter; classics she has made her own, House of the Rising Sun and The Boxer; and never far away, Bob Dylan, here in It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, With God on Our Side and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. Just imagine all we have seen and all she has lived through, a person of principle never far from the action, injecting grace and art into sordidness, not least the campaign season we are suffering through.

In person she was charming, with her good looks aging but attractive, her trademark-sexy pixie haircut in place and, despite 75 years, the ability to stand and sing with nary a break and only an occasional sip of tea. Her retinue could not have been more down-home and honest: her “co-singer” was her personal assistant, short and heavy, underdressed; her roadie was a young woman in flats and a complementary white “Nasty Woman” T; her band, the “Bad Hombres,” consisted of her middle-aged son Gabe on percussion and a wizard instrumentalist who played banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, accordion and piano with equal virtuosity. He also happened to be the stepson of Joan Hartman, who is running for 3rd District Supervisor in Santa Barbara County; his request for our votes made the political subtext of the concert that much more real.

Baez’s voice has inevitably lost range from the days of her early ballads, but she knows better than to push it. She left guitar theatrics to her sideman but handled her own accompaniment, starting with the opening Love Is a Four-Letter Word, with remarkable ease. She was always comfortable with what she was singing and she made us comfortable, and more.

Ryan Adams v. Weezer

Back-to-back nights at the Bowl brought us shows headlined by Ryan Adams (Thursday) and Weezer (Friday). The first was perfect, the latter a disappointment. I only knew about a third of Adams’s songs, but I enjoyed every one. Scoring a walk-up seat in the center of the sixth row made Adams’s exchanges with the raucous crowd that much more enjoyable. He hardly looks the rock star, with unkempt hair falling over his eyes like a shaggy dog and wearing a Pretenders T-shirt; his music, which he writes, and his guitar playing say it all. I thought I had heard that he could be off-putting in performance, but he was down-to-earth, casual and quite funny. His ballads were warm and soulful and his rockers rocked. Then there were jams, which rolled along like the Grateful Dead. The Independent review today said Adams is playing the best rock in America, and I felt lucky to be there.

I knew more, and expected more, of Weezer, but their music simply didn’t translate to an arena setting. Their tunes are simple, flat ahead, and words are important. Their sound system overwhelmed them, with a humongous woofer shaking the Bowl, and it was hard to hear what they were saying. Their stage presence was static and the visuals behind them trivial. (Ryan Adams, by contrast, used colors and shapes that emphasized his music – above all, “Blue” – whereas Weezer’s pictures distracted.) Not once did I feel transported, and I left the four-hour concert well before it finished and before they played “Buddy Holly.”

Three tall, good-looking women called Nice As Fuck opened for Adams and played an enjoyable set, although much smaller than their headliner. Panic! at the Disco opened for Weezer, and it seemed their fans were more vociferous, if not more numerous. (Weezer attracted a lot of parent-age, memory-laden fans, who were more restrained.) Other than a pitch-perfect rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody, their songs were full of energy but devoid of hooks or much in the way of melody. Far more preferable, to my mind, was the neglected show-opener, Andrew McMahon, who played the best songs of the night.

Florence & the Machine

If Joan of Arc were reincarnated today, she could do worse than finding herself in the person of Florence Welch, British rocker and star of Florence & the Machine, who performed at the Bowl last night (10/20/15). With barefoot purity, strong voice, handsome face and flowing red mane, Florence overflowed with charisma and could have led her adoring and mostly female audience happily on a crusade. She beseeched with her hands, expressive and politely tattooed, and flew back and forth across the stage and even into the crowd, with a skipping stride that glided weightlessly. Her slightly Gothic spirituality recalled Stevie Nicks in her prime, especially when she pirouetted, but Florence had more substance, both in body and in song. Her eleven backup singers and musicians were all uniformed in black; with a sky blue blouse and scarf that matched her eyes and a white silk vest suit, Florence stood out even more. She wasn’t just a lead singer; she was the show.

Her songs are heavy and generally avoid easy characterization: chanting, soaring, recitative then thunderous. She hit us with her best new song, Ship to Wreck, early in the set, which ended with her biggest hit, Dog Days Are Over. What Kind of Man was the lead encore. I didn’t know most of the others, but they were easy to follow, as most were anthemic and repeated themselves over and over. Her energy never flagged; she looked more beautiful and more powerful as the night went on and her communion with her fans grew. Like Jackson Browne and unlike Jimmy Buffett, to take two recent examples, you felt you were getting much more in the live performance than was communicated on record. If last night marked the end of my concertgoing for 2015, I can give out awards: Best Songs – Jackson Browne; Best Sound – Lord Huron; Best Performer – Florence Welch.

Buffett at the Bowl

[fusion_text]It doesn’t seem fair or nice to describe a Jimmy Buffett concert as “ho-hum,” but that is the word that comes to mind as I look back on his appearance at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Thursday night (10/15/15). Jimmy is so ebullient and appears to be having such a good time, you can’t help but sing, and when appropriate dance, along. As a longtime Buffett fan and regular listener to Radio Margaritaville on Sirius-XM, though, I felt I had heard the concert many times before – as, indeed, I had. It was not just that the songs were familiar, it was the arrangements, too. Whereas Jackson Browne made his old songs sound new, Jimmy’s old songs sounded the same.

It’s not his fault: most concertgoers would feel cheated if they didn’t hear Come Monday and Margaritaville. There were also plenty of adherents of A Pirate Looks at Forty and One Particular Harbor, although I am sort of tired of the latter. Five of my top ten Buffett songs were omitted, although I’m not sure how much difference The Weather is Here and Boat Drinks would have made. I suppose each of us could prepare our ideal Jimmy Buffett set, but I suspect Jimmy knows how to please the most people most of the time. New songs aren’t the answer. Workin’ n Playin’, his latest, and Blue Guitar, from 2002, were the only two I didn’t know, and neither had the magic of Fins, Cheeseburger in Paradise or Last Mango in Paris.

I should add that the video accompanying the concert was far and away the best I’ve seen. Three huge screens showed closeups of the performers and the audience that let me put away my opera glasses. Best of all were the shots of lapping waves and boats cruising the harbor that provided the perfect island feel for Jimmy’s songs. We could almost taste the Caribbean trip we’re taking in January. There were also a few shots of Santa Barbara which, along with Jimmy’s local references between songs, made the evening more personal.

In short, I love Jimmy’s persona and I love his music; it’s just that I didn’t love any of it any more after the concert than I did before.

[/fusion_text]

Moussorgsky Lite

[fusion_text]The USC Symphony Orchestra came to the Granada Theater in Santa Barbara to play “Pictures At An Exhibition,” the only classical piece I can hum, not counting those that have been turned into rock songs. The orchestra was fine, so far as I can tell, and the Moussorgsky work remains my favorite. The gimmick was accompanying animation, projected on the Granada’s new, overrated digital screen that descended behind the orchestra. Instead of enlarging the esthetic experience, it diminished it. Our attention was divided. When something funny happened on the screen, the audience tittered awkwardly, wondering if this could possibly be the composer’s intent. Maybe because we are accustomed to seeing first, hearing second, the music necessarily wound up as background to the cartoons, not vice versa. And the cartoons, for all their ingenuity, were never meant to stand alone or even take first place. When great music is played, how much better it is to leave the images to the listener’s imagination.

One note in passing about the Granada’s movie screen, which was introduced with much fanfare this year. We have seen two movies on it: To Kill A Mockingbird and Lawrence of Arabia. First, the screen seems far away, compared to the experience of a movie theater, or even a living room. Second, the sound does not envelop you as it does in a movie theater. There is a feeling of separation; you can study the film, but you don’t experience it.[/fusion_text]

Jackson Browne

“That’s why you go to live concerts,” said one veteran concertgoer after Jackson Browne wound up his second encore – The Load-Out and Stay – at the Santa Barbara Bowl on August 11, 2015. Every song – both the classics and the new – sounded better – so much better – than they do on disc. The sound was louder, of course, but also more propulsive. The rolling rhythm was as relentless as the nearby ocean, and the two lead guitars took turns adding jaw-dropping pyrotechnics that melded seamlessly with Browne’s familiar melodies. The first moment of transcendence arrived in For Everyman, as the drums built to a climax that spread and covered the Bowl.

I couldn’t have asked for a better set list: For A Dancer, Fountain of Sorrow, Running on Empty, Doctor My Eyes, The Pretender, I’m Alive, Looking East, These Days, Just Say Yeah – heavy on the early hits with a single nod to most of the later albums. Browne mixed in six numbers from his 2014 release, Standing in the Breach, but he personalized each one by telling us when and why it was written. This became a bit political, as the songs, apparently written over a five-year period, each spoke to a cause – the oceans, Haitian schoolchildren, democracy – but since the words were hard to hear we could just enjoy the sound. And speaking of words, while they weren’t as crisp live as they are on record, Browne’s voice was full and didn’t have the nasal tinge it does in the studio.

In all, it was a warm, mellow evening that gave me a new appreciation of some of my oldest, strongest musical memories, much more satisfying than the Radio City Music Hall concert I attended on my 40th birthday. For me in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Jackson Browne and the Eagles were California. Now, here I am.

Lucinda Williams

Who goes to a Lucinda Williams concert to hear how loud her band can be? Neither my friend nor I, so I guess you’d say we were disappointed in her show at the Lobero last night (3/6/15). She got off to a bad start, waiting 35 minutes to take the stage after the 40-minute set by a generic Southern-rock group (named after its singer and lead-guitarist, the tattooed-stomach-baring Kenneth Brian). Even the mellow Santa Barbara crowd had grown restless. Her appearance, if I’m allowed the comment, was unsettling: she has gotten very heavy up top,  her jeans and her jacket struggled to contain their contents. She had paid no more attention to her hair than Chrissie Hynde or Patti Smith, and it looked worse, if anything. The sound mix on her first few songs was off: we heard a lot of drums, especially bass, and not much of Lucinda’s vocals. Then her band left the stage and matters improved: we could hear her singing and were reminded of what good songs she has recorded, such as “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten.” When the band returned, so did the volume. The mix was better, but Lucinda sang less: a couple times she just watched from the sideline as the drummer and two guitars tested how hard they could rock. By the end,  it was more a typical arena-rock performance than the intimate kind of singer-songwriter concert you’d hope for at the Lobero or the experience you’d expect from her records. And no “Passionate Kisses.”

Three Women Folkies

Three middle-aged female singer-songwriters brought their low-energy show to the Lobero last night (2/20/15) to the pleasure of the less-than-capacity crowd of nice-looking, middle-aged ex-hippies and relationship types. Eliza Gilkyson had the best voice – pure and with just enough character; Mary Gauthier had spiky hair and attitude, in both her comments and her lyrics; Gretchen Peters was the least interesting but strummed the hardest. Their voices weren’t that different and their songs weren’t, either: all sang songs from their “breakup” albums and what was called an “up” song was merely less sad than the others. What killed any possible excitement, however, aside from their appearances – as Eliza commented, “When I was here last time I was standing up and didn’t have glasses” – was the show’s format: they sat on stage three abreast and sang their songs in order, from right to left, going down the line three times before break and three times after, with commentary about each song’s origin in between. There was no group singing, which would have added interest, although Eliza occasionally sang backup harmony very softly. As each sang, the other two just sat quietly and listened, which made us do the same. It felt more like a songwriting master class than a concert. When Eliza “Seegered” us to sing along on her final number, the crowd responded admirably, with pent-up admiration that was never fully fueled.