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’…”
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.