At the risk of sounding too old and sentimental for my own good, I'm excited about Jackson Browne's acoustic concert at the Performing Arts Center this week. I realize that some of my colleagues, bandmates, and friends can't stand his mild-mannered songwriting, and they aren't impressed by the guitarist/pianist's smooth voice, Southern California style, and activist nature. But I'll defend the best stuff. He certainly penned more than a few decent ballads, anthems, and protest tunes over his 45-year career. Some of my affection for Browne's '80s hits remains.
A few months ago, when the Performing Arts Center announced that Browne would be returning to town for a show, my mind immediately clicked on memories of digging into the 1980 album Hold Out — the only Jackson Browne album I've ever owned.
Browne' songwriting voice has always been purely Californian. By his late teens, he'd already been writing tunes with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Little Feat, and others in L.A.'s folk-rock circuit. Artists like Tim Buckley, Linda Ronstadt, and the Eagles even recorded his hook-laden songs.
As a youngster just getting into rock, I'd noticed some of his early radio tunes. I liked the shuffle-beat of "Doctor My Eyes," his big breakthrough in 1972. I enjoyed the live concert atmosphere of 1977's Running on Empty — especially the slide guitar-accented, anthemic title track and the piano ballad "The Load-Out," which paid homage to rock roadies before twisting into a rendition of Maurice Williams' "Stay."
There were two songs from Hold Out that grabbed my ears: "Boulevard" and "That Girl Could Sing." Driven by distorted guitar and Warren Zevon-esque piano, both sounded much more modern than the mellower '70s stuff. Critics were lukewarm about Hold Out, but it remains this fan's favorite album. The chunky opening guitar riff that kicks off "Boulevard" rocked as hard as anything in the Top 40 in 1980. Browne sounded raspier and more exasperated than usual, like when he strained to hit the high notes in the line, "Everybody walks right by like they're safe or something!"
The follow-up hit from Hold Out was the moody "That Girl Could Sing." Written as a sorrowful love song, Browne's lyrics were syrupy, and the electric piano harkened back a bit to his "soft rock" beginnings. But guitarist David Lindley's distorted Rickenbacker lap steel sounded anything but sweet, and his expressive solo pushed the song over the top. I still turn up the volume when I catch it on rock radio.
Released on the eve of MTV's initial splash in 1982, "Boulevard" and "That Girl Could Sing" missed out on the music video machinery that propelled so many '80s acts. That's probably a good thing. The corny videos for the two big hits from Browne's 1983 album Lawyers in Love, the title track and "Tender is the Night," didn't do much to enhance his cool factor.
My last blast with Browne's catalog ends with his 1982 melodic single "Somebody's Baby." Released on the original soundtrack to the teen flick Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the song never appeared on one of Browne's studio albums, but it became one of his biggest hits. The cheerful tone of the song took on a dark twist as part of the scene where Jennifer Jason Leigh's character loses her virginity to a stereo salesman in a little league dugout. An L.A. songsmith for an L.A. scene? It actually worked well.
I hope Browne touches on these early '80s tunes during his current solo acoustic tour when he visits the PAC on Sun. July 15. At least one rendition would make this sentimental writer applaud.
Jackson Browne shares the Performing Arts Center stage with Sara Watkins at 7:30 p.m. on Sun. July 15. Visit jacksonbrowne.com for more.