In a 45-year career, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne has never once been in danger of topping anyone’s Most Charismatic Performer list, and his show at the Riverside Theatre on Saturday evening certainly confirmed that status.
Without any fanfare, dimming of the lights or even an introduction, Browne strolled onstage and greeted the crowd of 2,200 with a wave and a "Happy to see you." With that, he picked up a guitar and led the band into "The Barricades of Heaven," "Just Say Yeah" and "The Long Way Around," songs from 1996, 2008, and 2014 respectively. It was a few more numbers into the set before Browne treated the audience to an old favorite, "These Days."
Like many other artists with collection of hits, the most enduring songs in Browne’s catalog come from his first five albums. These are the tried and true crowd pleasers, and Browne could have easily filled the 120-minute performance with them. Hell, the Rolling Stones have been getting away with this for years.
But Jackson Browne isn’t Mick Jagger, and he’s shown himself to be fearless when it comes to challenging his audiences with new material as well as new ways to perform the old favorites. In a recent interview, Browne told me that there are many ways to perform his songs, providing the emotion is there. In past years, he’s appeared in concert without a band, opting instead to play with an acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment.
On Saturday, Browne was backed by a powerful quintet fueled by two electric guitar players who doubled on fiddle, pedal steel and mandolin. Backing vocals were provided by Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, who also opened the show with a 45-minute set of their own. Campbell and Williams – who have worked with Mavis Staples, Levon Helm, Bob Dylan and a host of other musicians – are a testament to Jackson Browne’s willingness to nurture and collaborate with other artists. In the mid-'70s, Browne helped Warren Zevon get a recording contract, and Saturday’s set included a rousing cover of Zevon’s "Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded."
Perhaps the standout song of the evening was "Which Side," an edgy rocker from Browne’s latest album, "Standing in the Breach."
Eventually, the crowd got a little rowdy and started calling out requests. Browne handled it all good-naturedly, even saying to one woman who kept hollering for "Running on Empty" that, "We’ll get to that." Although when someone called out for him to play "Stay," Browne got a laugh when he said, "We can play that but then I’d have to leave."
Toward the end of the set, Browne took full command of the show when he sat down at the piano and delivered knockout renditions of "The Pretender" and "Doctor My Eyes." The closer, a medley of "Take it Easy" and "Our Lady of the Well," brought the enthusiastic audience to their feet.