Tanglewood Music Center, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the cozy Berkshire Mountains, Rock 'n roll Hall-of-Famer Jackson Browne told the audience he was honored to be "a guest in James Taylor's house." The latter has been the regular host of the venue's Fourth of July celebration for nearly two decades but this year, with Taylor unable to attend, the night was handed over to Browne.
The Southern Californian paid tribute to his fellow American music legend mid-concert when he and two of his elite sidemen, siblings Sean and Sara Watkins, sang the title track from Taylor's career making masterpiece album with a harmony laced arrangement of "Sweet Baby James." The choice was especially appropriate because JT is a local favorite who mentioned nearby Stockbridge, Massachusetts in his song.
The above story is relevant because it's an example of Browne's unusual song choices that evening. The concert was an event full of surprises that featured only a handful of his most famous works. He appeared to be creating the set list on the fly but the band knew these deep tracks too well for anyone to believe the selections were totally spontaneous.
When we purchased tickets last January the performance was billed as an acoustic set. Instead, when Browne, who also doubled as the evening's MC, introduced Sara Watkins as his opening act the headliner announced that he put together an eight piece rock ensemble. He referred to them as "an embarrassment of riches" and they played like the consummate professionals they are.
After opening with the title songs from I'm Alive and its follow up album, Looking East, Browne took his classic albums out of the vault but ignored most of the hits. He played Danny Kortchmar's "Shaky Town" from Running on Empty and one of his more eccentric songs from back in the day, the Mexican flavored "Linda Paloma" from The Pretender. He got positive but mild responses to "The Naked Ride Home" from the CD of the same name and "Live Nude Cabaret" from his last studio release, Time the Conqueror. Only then did he decide to play one of his greatest hits: a perfect rendition of "The Pretender," a song that is always instantly recognizable from its opening piano chord.
Browne continued with a nice version of "Lives in the Balance," "A Child in These Hills," and another of his long lost album gems, Steve Van Zant's "I Am a Patriot" (an excellent choice for the holiday).
A hard rocking "Doctor My Eyes" featured a hot solo by Browne's electric lead guitarist, Val McCallum. While he didn't make you forget David Lindley the much sought after studio hand proved he was more than just a capable replacement for the singer-songwriter's good friend and former right hand man. Browne even gave McCallum a chance to play "Tokyo Girl," a track from his new solo album.
The finale brought the crowd to its feet. Browne introduced Kortchmar who joined the band on guitar for "Running on Empty" and he remained for the encore, "Take it Easy." Then, with permission to do only one more song because of Tanglewood's fireworks display that immediately followed the two hour, twenty song set, Sara Watkins gave us some excellent Lindleyesque fiddle work as the band closed out the evening with one of Browne's more beautiful ballads, "Before the Deluge."
The folk-rocker was in a great mood all night and he chatted with the audience more than he usually does in between songs. He really seemed like he wanted to keep playing if he hadn't been forced to stop.
Watkins, formerly of the defunct Nickel Creek, opened the evening with a thirty-five minute set of her own. Her brother, also from the same band, was by her side and Browne came out to sing on two tunes. She opened with a solo, a cappella version of "America the Beautiful" that was perfect for the Fourth. Overall, Sara's set was enjoyable, though not memorable, but she and Sean served the main attraction quite well.