Ambling onstage just after 9 p.m. at the Belk Theater in Charlotte last Saturday, Jackson Browne looked no worse for the wear of a 40-year career as a classic American singer-songwriter, even if his era has largely passed him by. As his pal Danny O'Keefe put it decades ago in "The Road," a tune that Browne turned into one of his best-known numbers, that was a time when "a good song takes you far." And Browne continues to have a lot of those.
Part confessional romantic and part political crusader, Browne rose to prominence in Southern California amid a 1970s golden age of rock stardom, a time when the top musicians of their day became fixtures in popular culture and household names to their generation. His comfortable niche afforded him an enviable cross section of artistic freedom, critical acclaim and commercial relevance—more artistically credible than David Gates, if less so than Tom Waits; more radio-friendly than Warren Zevon, if less so than his pals in the Eagles; more rocked-up than James Taylor, if less so than Tom Petty.
Browne launched into a new number for the second tune of his set in Charlotte. It was so fresh, in fact, that he forgot the lyrics, twice, just a few lines in. He explained from his piano bench that he'd written it after the Haiti earthquake, initially addressing that tragedy but eventually finding his way to other, broader concerns. Presumably called "Standing in the Breach," it might stand with the best of Browne's socially conscious work—most notably his late-1980s albums Lives in the Balance and World in Motion, which included the anthem "For America" and his definitive cover of Little Steven's "I Am a Patriot," respectively.
Browne seems to have been energized toward political concerns recently. Footage surfaced on YouTube last winter of him performing at an Occupy encampment in Washington, D.C., playing "I Am a Patriot" mixed with some recast verses of the old protest song "Which Side Are You On."
Still, at its best, Browne's work has always blended the personal and the political. From 1996 songs such as "Looking East" to early '70s classics such as the title track to For Everyman (both of which he played at the Charlotte show), Browne tends to forgo polemics in favor of more subtle observations of characters whose lives are affected by the conditions of the world around them. That quality made his 1976 album, The Pretender, the most momentous of his career. And despite the recent political dalliances, his exploits as of late have also keyed on the simple pleasures of musical collaboration with younger artists. He's developed a kinship with the indie band Dawes. He told the Charlotte audience near the end of the set that his current tour was inspired in part by performances at the LA club Largo billed as the Watkins Family Hour, featuring Sara and Sean Watkins of the band Nickel Creek.
Indeed, the Watkins siblings opened in Charlotte, just as they will in Durham later this weekend. They joined Browne onstage for a few songs, with the magical potential of their collaboration coming into focus in the final moments of "The Late Show," from 1974's Late for the Sky. Sara Watkins' fiddle intertwined with guitarist Val McCallum's leads, creating a graceful swirl of string sounds that bridged the song to its finale.
A couple of tracks from that same album, delivered earlier in the set, drove to the heart of Browne's push and pull between the political and personal. "Well the words had all been spoken, but somehow the feeling still wasn't right," he sang during Late for the Sky's title track. "And so we continued on through the night." The idea was amplified on "Fountain of Sorrow," in which Browne's heartbreak descends to a point "where if you feel too free and you need something to remind you/ There's this loneliness springing up from your life like a fountain from a pool."
While his willingness to speak his mind will always be an essential part of his identity, it's not what ultimately defines him as an artist. In Browne's music, politics is not the end in itself, but rather a means to an end. The endgame remains the love song.
On Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie, a 2011 album of prose passages from the Guthrie archives set to music by contemporary artists including Lou Reed, Michael Franti and Tom Morello, Browne did not choose a politically focused excerpt. Instead, he voiced "You Know the Night," a stream-of-consciousness romantic ramble about the night Woody met his wife, Marjorie. "I just felt like you feel when you feel like the angels are curling your hair, and you feel like the devil is scratching your heels," Browne sings. He brings Woody's written words to life as someone who understands that, while political songs may help keep us grounded, it's the most personal songs that send our spirits soaring toward the great beyond.
This article appeared in print with the headline "From road to sky."