Surely, Jackson Browne had no idea he was making two people happier than they’d been in a very long time when he sat down at his piano to play an unscripted audience request for a lesser-known, sad-and-slow, decidedly-not-concert-standard song in the middle of his Riverside Theater show on Saturday night.
Surely, it was just a lucky coincidence that, in a crowd of mostly gray-haired baby boomers, it was another 20-something young guy – sitting just a few rows back from me – who called out the request, imploring Browne to perform the one number I so desperately wanted to hear but was too timid to do anything more than hope for.
And surely, I thought, after Browne briefly considered the entreaty ("You want to hear that one?" he asked, contemplatively and somewhat surprised), my mom, who had made what my sister and I hoped was a strategically timed run to the restroom, would not miss this song – our song, played unexpectedly and unbelievably – on this night that meant so much.
I’m not a music critic; I don’t typically do show reviews. Also, I’m not terribly pious; I chalk fate up to whatever else I can most of the time. And it may be a touch eye-roll-inducing to say that what happened eight songs into Browne’s set on Saturday was destined to be.
But the difficult context of everything, the events and experiences and memories and feelings that informed the situation – those particular and providential circumstances that found us sitting at a Jackson Browne concert and really, really needing some good vibrations – were divine in every sense of the word.
And sure enough, as the stage lights twilighted to a rich azure and the svelte Browne took a seat at his ebony piano and caressed the first few moving chords to "Sky Blue and Black," his heartrending and no-doubt rarely performed 1993 love-lost lament, there was my mom, scurrying down the aisle, smiling in a startled sort of way to soothe my look of excited panic that she wouldn’t be there.
The song, which had gotten me through new relationships and breakups, gotten us through family ordeals and reflective spells, with its brooding melody and buried meaning, was everything. The surprise, the serendipity, the poignancy, the pathos, the fact that we needed it so badly and, after becoming accustomed to expecting the worst, got what we wanted, got the best.
We laughed at our happy luck, as Browne played with only the softest of accompaniment from his brilliant band, sang along while the 67-year-old delivered a stirring vocal performance and hugged, glassy-eyed, at the end, as the house offered the first of many standing ovations.
Afterward, Browne thanked the crowd – something he’d do throughout the show, with a level of sincerity that surpassed the usual musician acknowledgment – and the guy who’d requested "Sky Blue and Black" put his hand over his heart and pointed at the singer, mouthing "Thank you."
I wanted to thank him. It had been a hard year for my family – one of our hardest, emotionally and psychologically. But it was hard in the way that, in reality, no year is easy. For anyone. Death, disease, accident, mistake – every family, every person, deals with tragedy and trauma, change and loss, often unexpectedly.
The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, which occurred the day before Browne’s show at the Riverside, are an example of how lives can be rocked, families shaken and ruined. Browne did not explicitly mention the horrific events, but his act included a few of the trademark sociopolitical outcries for which he’s well known.
On a personal level, after angsting about a busy work schedule and agonizing over whether or not to spend a lot of money on three tickets to see an older musician we’d just seen a little over a year ago – Browne played a more intimate, acoustic-only show last July – and attempting a cost-benefit analysis, I was, ultimately, sublimely and indescribably happy that we went.
There was the jaw-droppingly talented husband-and-wife opener consisting of modest Larry Campbell (on guitar, mandolin, violin and more) and captivating Teresa Williams (on breathtaking lead vocals). There was the awesome moment when, after acquiescing to the "Sky Blue and Black" request and being subsequently showered with shouted petitions for virtually every song in his catalog, Browne declared, "We’ve officially turned off the highway; the set list means nothing." Cue the roaring cheer.
There was his good-natured response to a particularly fervent woman screaming for "Running on Empty," when he said, "I heard you. We always do that one, but we do it later." There was Browne’s engaging and sometimes-concealed raconteur side, as he told a story about the time he invited his then-girlfriend to a recording studio where there were 15 other guys and "the arithmetic" didn’t work out well for their relationship ("actually it worked out pretty good for her," he said).
There was the humanizing instance he forgot the words to Warren Zevon's "Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded" and told the audience, mid-song, "I can’t screw this up. This is not my song." There was the time a request was yelled for his hit "Stay," but Browne retorted: "We could play that, but then I’d have to leave."
There were multiple occasions when Browne thanked Milwaukee with a genuine sense of appreciation, including when he disclosed his distinct love for the city's people. There was the second he strummed the initial chords of "In the Shape of a Heart," and my sister and I looked at each other, laughed and started belting out the words.
There was the entire audience at a seated-show theater standing and singing and dancing in their rows, people like my mom and the woman next to her talking and bonding, older couples holding hands and embracing each other, everyone grinning and applauding and taking pictures and pushing toward the front, like it was a Rave concert.
And when he finally played "Running on Empty," it was mob rule in the best and most middle-aged of ways. Everyone was ecstatic. Hard years, trying times, adversity and sadness and loss were all fleetingly forgotten. I know mine was. And afterward – after the most emotional and nostalgic and inspiring show I’ve ever seen; simply, the best concert I’ve seen – given the context that had informed such an amazing experience, I felt my life perspective tilt more positive. I knew that the concert had meant everything because of everything.
Surely, given all that is black and blue in our lives and the world, certain songs, specific experiences and unique, beautiful memories can, if not soothe our troubles, at least make us smile at, sing to, dance by, holds hands with and hug those that we love and need so much.
And surely, following his encore, Jackson Browne wasn’t looking at three random people and smiling like he knew how happy he’d made them. But we like to think he was.
You're the color of the sky
Reflected in each store-front window pane
You're the whispering and the sighing
Of my tires in the rain
You're the hidden cost and the thing that's lost
In everything I do
Yeah and I'll never stop looking for you
In the sunlight and the shadows
And the faces on the avenue
That's the way love is
Sky blue and black
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.