Wednesday, 26 April 2017


‘Mellow’ Was a Dirty Word

Eventually I come around. Monday evening Ann and I went to hear singer-songwriter Jackson Browne at Winspeare Centre, Edmonton’s sonically perfect symphony hall. We were pretty certain we didn’t look as old as everybody else in the crowd. The show was billed as ‘mostly acoustic,’ a popular, travel light format for ageing musicians who no longer release new albums each calendar year. Ann and I have variously seen Ray Davies of the Kinks; John Hiatt; John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett; John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark and Joe Ely, on similar stripped down tours.

Like many music fans, Ann and I have been inadvertently trained to expect a live show to sound exactly like the records. When the lights go down I initially miss the fullness a complete backing band provides. However, the payoff of simplicity and intimacy is that the performance becomes a conversation. During one of his two sets Browne told us all, ‘This is like being at my house except I can’t go and make a sandwich.’

On stage was a piano flanked by umpteen guitars. Browne’s virtuoso accompanist had his own rack of guitars, mandolins, dobros and a pedal steel guitar. Unsurprisingly Browne’s first few songs were ballads. Ann and I exchanged looks, ‘This might be boring.’ As the artist and his audience got more comfortable with each other and the venue, and catalogue obscurities ceded the set list to hits, the energy began to rise a little in a laid back California way. ‘You want a happy song? I don’t write many so I have to ration them.’

During the instrument changing lull after ‘Before the Deluge,’ I realized that if the year was 1977 instead of 2017, there’d be no way I’d be sitting in the auditorium. Back then Browne was riding high with Running on Empty. Back then if an album charted and became a hit, it stuck around for months or even years. There was no escaping the title track and the segue of ‘The Load-out’ into a cover of the Zodiacs’ ‘Stay.’ The songs were introspective, with a whiff of ‘poor me’ rock star road blues, albeit more uplifting and literate than Bob Seger’s ‘Turn the Page.’

At that time in my life I was young, horny, angry and confused (I was so much older then). Browne was a don in the Los Angeles ‘mellow mafia’ of the late 70s; FM radio was dominated by him, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Sunny, catchy, jangling despair was everywhere around my dial. The music that entranced and captivated me was coming from the European coast of the Atlantic Ocean, punk and new wave. CREEM magazine and Trouser Press were reporting on interesting doings in New York City. And truthfully, a girl I liked back then was also liked by a guy named Rick who liked Jackson Browne and thought ‘Running on Empty’ was ‘heavy’ and ‘deep,’ so you can guess how that all ended.

Soon enough Browne caught the Bruce Springsteen bug, releasing the bleached LA grit of ‘Boulevard,’ complete with a deliciously crunchy Stones riff. He sat for the cover of Rolling Stone in leathers, a stretch, especially as his motorcycle jacket was aquamarine. It did not suit. These days Browne is a social activist after having reinvented himself as a political songwriter. He’s too good a lyricist to drop a real rhyming clunker, but the syllable flow in ‘Lawyers in Love’ as opposed to ‘The Pretender’ stumbles because of its urgent requirement to preach. And how qualified is anyone to talk about anything beyond their realm of expertise? Jackson Browne could not tune his own guitar Monday night; ‘Professional help,’ he quipped as the roadie did the work. Well, enough said.

I came around to Jackson Browne about 15 years ago. A lifelong friend, then living alone in a rented house, had treated himself to new set of Mission speakers. ‘You’ve got to come over and listen to these,’ Tim said. I was kicking stones between personal disasters and getting my nourishment from Petro-Canada hoagies. Years ago Tim had bought himself a pair of Mission 70s, I followed suit about six months later (I still have them). Decades down the road and in a different city I turned up at his place with beer and primed to rock out the way we did when we were preteens, teenagers and a little bit older and maybe ten years older than that. His new speakers were unbelievably skinny yet tall, worthy of worship, Easter Island totems for music nuts. I figured Tim would play Dark Side of the Moon because that album has always been the new audio equipment cliché tester, reliable since 1973.

Damned if he didn’t select ‘Doctor, My Eyes’ and maximize the volume. I sat on Tim’s couch and buckled my seatbelt. The richness of the sound and the song’s production was overwhelming. Bash those piano keys like Jerry Lee! I heard the lyrics, listened to the words for the first time: a heartfelt lament about the human condition, somewhat stoic but neither apathetic nor cynical. I knew the song but I didn’t really know it at all, three minutes to ignore on a cheap radio. ‘Just say if it’s too late for me.’ It wasn’t, it’s not. Thank you for your patience with me, Jackson Browne. Come back with a band.

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