All three tiers at the Sage are pretty much full tonight and that’s testament to the enduring popularity of one of the great American songwriters and, it seems to me, that’s the way it should be. Jackson Browne has been putting out albums and touring since the early 70’s and although he may not be as prolific as Dylan, Neil Young or Van the Man he has a enviable level of consistency. He arrives back in Newcastle with a brilliant new album and a cracking five piece band with occasional backing vocals from two fantastic female singers.
I count almost 20 guitars on the stage as Jackson walks out and strums a couple of chords that draw some cheers from the good humoured crowd. Without any ceremony he launches straight into “The Barricades of Heaven” from his less well known 1996 album “Looking East” and it’s a perfect opener immediately showcasing his phenomenal band’s prowess and Jackson’s strong clear vocals. He doesn’t seem to have lost any of his range unlike some of his contemporaries (you know who they are). The songs ends and is greeted by warm applause and a comment from someone behind that it’s “bang on the money” and that’s just what it is too. Without pausing for breath we’re straight into “Looking into You” from the 1972 album “Saturate Before Using” which is met with a few cheers. Browne’s new album, “Standing in the Breach”, is heavily featured tonight, a brave stance as few people will have heard it as it’s only been out a month or so. Song three is the first of the new songs and its “The Long Way around” and, like the rest of the songs on the album, it asks tough questions about where we are today. There’s an element of despair as he sings “I could feel my memory go some two or three disasters ago”. His sweet voice belies the bitterness of the sentiment as guitarist Val McCallum plays around with some eerie guitar effects. Jackson comments that he’s “feeling shy” tonight and not sure how much he wants to talk pointing out that Bob Dylan rarely speaks a word on stage. Then he gives us a long introduction about messing around trains as a young ‘un as a lead in to another new song “Leaving Winslow” with Morris Lewak’s drums tapping out a great impression of a train. Perhaps remembering that his audience may not have heard these newer songs yet we roll next in to a bona fide classic. “These Days” is from an early 70’s album “For Everyman” but was written even earlier and appeared on Nico’s first album (she of Velvet Underground & Nico fame) and it’s one of Browne’s greatest songs and is met with warm applause and cheers and is a real highlight of the evening. Next up is “Shaky Town” a song about earthquake city L.A. that appeared on “Running on Empty” written by Danny Kotchmar. Jackson quips “If I sing it enough I’ll think that I wrote it” . After an excellent “I’m Alive” we get a long introduction to another new song “You Know the Night” which is a Woody Guthrie song that, Jackson tells us, is a straight narrative of the day that Woody met his wife for the first time and it’s another cracking song, as you’d expect from the pen of Woody. We end the first set with a storming “Fountain of Sorrow” from the classic 1974 album “Late For the Sky”. The band really stand out here with the two guitarists Val McCallum and Greg Leisnz being particularly impressive.
As Jackson comes out for the second set he notes a sign from some fans who have come from Hong Kong for the show giving them a big thumbs up. The guy next to me says “That’s nowt – I’ve come from a Felling”. We ease into the second half with a thundering “Rock me on the Water” from his 1972 debut album before again dipping into the new album with three new songs that effectively make up the heart of the show. First off is “If I Could be Anywhere” and Jackson tells us about its beginnings on a trip to the Galápagos Islands during a trip to study the Oceans. This is where Jackson’s writing really comes alive and it’s great to hear that he hasn’t lost any of his radical thinking as he sings “They say nothing lasts for ever but all the plastic ever made is still here”. Yes, it’s another dreaded ecological disaster song but his voice is so sweet, forceful and full of fire that you can’t help but be drawn in. I’m left wondering why there aren’t any young radical musicians with the same bite and anger. I’m not the only one as someone shouts “It’s a great song, Jackson” when it finishes. Jackson looks pleased and shouts back “Thanks!” He’s not letting go though and we get “Which Side are You On?” next. Here’s another song that’s not afraid to communicate anger at the way the world has been corrupted by power and money as he furiously sings “Who owns the elections? Who profits either way? Who ends up with all the money politicians pay?” It’s stirring stuff for sure but Jackson is an artist who’s unafraid to stand up and be counted. He follows this with the title track of the new album “Standing in the Breach” a song inspired by the Haitian earthquake and the poverty around it and exacerbated by it. He’s clearly fired up by his new songs but is smart enough to know that his audience want some old classics and they launch into an excellent cover of the great Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita” that receives sporadic cheers from those in the hall who still miss Zevon’s acidic writing. We stop off once more at the new album with a superb “The Birds of St Marks” that has a classic Byrds feel and a classic rickenbakker guitar solo in the middle that can’t be a coincidence. We roll down to the end of the show with a stunning romp through “The Pretender” and a roaring “Running on Empty” that gets the crowd to their feet and into a cheering climax of the Eagles classic “Take it Easy” (that Jackson, of course, wrote) and then a final stately piano based “For A Dancer” that will certainly have prompted some tears in the hall.
A truly stunning show that underlines Browne’s greatness as a writer, singer and band leader. It’s a shame that his contemporaries and newer artist aren’t delivering such high quality material but then not everyone possesses such gifts. This was probably the best show I’ve seen this year so next time he comes around make sure you are there.
Reviewer: Greg Johnson
Photographer: Graeme Baty