THINGS TO DO MUSIC + CONCERTS
Running on Empty: Jackson Browne drains the tank in inspired Costa Mesa show
By Gene Harbrecht, Orange County Register
PUBLISHED: August 17, 2019 at 5:07 pm | UPDATED: August 17, 2019 at 5:08 pm
A recurring theme in Jackson Browne’s 50-plus-year songwriting career is use of the imagery of life on the highway as a metaphor to excavate the emotional journey of the human condition from depths of despair to the pinnacle of joyful triumph.
With that in mind, Browne’s Costa Mesa appearance Friday, Aug. 16 could be described thusly: He and his 7-piece combo hit the Pacific Amphitheater stage about 7:35 p.m. with a topped-off tank of gas. Some three hours and 26 songs later he was — yep, you guessed it — “Running on Empty.”
It was for the most part a workmanlike show. Browne didn’t waste a lot of time with off-point stage banter, instead intent to let the music speak as he rolled out a generous collection of greatest hits and hidden gems to the delight of the capacity audience.
Opening with “I’m Alive,” the title track of the 1993 album, he covered “Take It Easy,” “The Pretender,” “These Days,” “Sky Blue and Black,” “Tender is the Night,” “Somebody’s Baby” and “Your Bright Baby Blues” as well as the aforementioned “Running on Empty.”
With full beard and graying hair, Brown is showing all of his 70 years. But his energy Friday was inspired and his voice — crisper than it’s seemed in recent years — helped breathe new life into his rich catalogue, aided by numerous clever lyric switch-ups.
High points occurred on a couple of his most somber classics: “For a Dancer” chronicles the sudden tragic death of a friend (“I don’t remember losing track of you / You were always dancing in and out of view / I must have thought you’d always be around / Always keeping things real by playing the clown”) and “Fountain of Sorrow” tells of a relationship fading away (“You were turning ’round to see who was behind you / And I caught your childish laughter by surprise /But at the moment that my camera happened to find you /There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes.”)
In his trademark mastery, Brown delivered each with a solemn tone that conveyed regret tinged with optimism.
His backing band included multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz, whose varied steel pedal, lap guitar licks imbued most of the selections, in a way filling the niche of longtime Browne collaborator David Lindley. Guitarist Mason Stoops, an Orange County native, filled in impressively, shredding on most up-tempo numbers, most notably “Doctor My Eyes.”
One of the more emotional crescendos came when Browne brought out New York singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson to perform “A Human Touch.” The two and songwriter Steve McEwan penned the song for the new documentary “5B” about the first AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital in the early 1980s.
The haunting chorus: “Everybody gets lonely / Feel like it’s all too much / Reaching out for some connections / Or maybe just their own reflection / Not everybody finds it / Not like the two of us / Sometimes all anybody needs is a human touch”
Causes, be they political or social, have always underpinned Browne’s persona. He didn’t dwell on politics Friday, but didn’t ignore them altogether either.
He performed “Walls and Doors,” a cut from his 2014 album “Standing in the Breach,” a translation of Cuban singer-songwriter Carlos Varela’song with the chorus “Let me say that again / Because I know that we both know it / There can be freedom only when nobody owns it.”
Browne dusted off his mid-’80s political anthem “Lives in the Balance,” including a new updating verse penned by his longtime backing vocalists Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart, and also covered Steven Van Zandt’s “I am a Patriot” and Steve Earle’s “City of Immigrants.”
Browne, who grew up in Los Angeles and Fullerton, where he attended Sunny Hills High School, seemed reticent to talk much about his Orange County roots. That he continues to harbor some disdain for the county’s conservative legacy was apparent in the few remarks he did make, apparently having not gotten the message that the county has shed the Republican mantle.
Pushing the amphitheater’s 10:30 p.m. curfew, Browne wrapped the show with ‘70s throwback “The Loadout” and Maurice Williams’ “Stay,” sending a capacity crowd home happy, and then hopped on the bus for the next show in Fresno.
When: Friday, Aug. 16
Where: Pacific Amphitheater in Costa Mesa
“Take it Easy”
“Our Lady of the Well”
“Enough of the Night”
“The Long Way Around”
“A Human Touch”
“Lives in the Balance”
“Sky Blue and Black”
“For a Dancer”
“Tender is the Night”
“Fountain of Sorrow”
“Walls and Doors”
“City of Immigrants”
“Doctor My Eyes”
“I’ll Do Anything”
“Your Bright Baby Blues”
“In the Shape of a Heart”
“Running on Empty”
“I Am a Patriot”