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Jackson Browne Brings It In Grand Rapids

Jackson Browne answered the three questions that swirled inside my head before last night’s acoustic show at Devos Performance Hall.  Was he still relevant?  Could he still sing?  And would I be overwhelmed by a unwanted wave of nostalgia during the concert?  Let’s answer the easy questions first.  Jackson’s voice is still a powerful instrument of emotion.  It would be easy for a guy like him to hire a great big band with three or four background vocalists to carry the load, while his diminishing talent blends safely in the mix.  It takes much more nerve and confidence to put yourself –alone — in front of an audience night after night.  Jackson didn’t play any new music.  He didn’t have to.  What he played was powerful and raw acoustic versions of the songs his fans have loved for years.  By doing so,  he reinvented himself and gained a great deal of my respect.  This was not a money grabbing greatest hits tour.  This show was about Jackson Browne’s music…in its simplest form.

By the time the forth song started, I knew I was having a great time.  It unlike any other concert I’d ever been to.  The sold-out crowd yelled out favorites for Jackson to play.  And he tried his best to please, even picking out just the right guitar for the song.  He 19 guitars and a keyboard on stage with him.  There was nothing fancy about the setting.   There was no elaborate lighting, no video screens and nothing to draw your attention away from the singer on the stage.  My wife and I had to laugh, though.  Within seconds of Jackson taking a break, everyone around us was checking messages or playing games on their cell phones.

I have been a fan since Jackson released Running on Empty in early 1977.  I’d heard of him before, but never really made much of a connection.  You’re 17 years old and you’re afraid to admit you don’t know everything and suddenly some music comes along and says it’s okay to have questions and doubts.  Jackson Brown never sugar coated anything.  In that way he and Bruce Springsteen are alike.   But while  Springsteen wrote music about “characters”…always presenting their point of view; Jackson often wrote about himself.  The mis-steps, wrong turns and pain in his life made great material for his song writing.  I spent lots of time in college becoming familiar with his back catologe.  The Pretender and Running on Empty are still in my top favorite albums of all time.  I often wondered how he could sing night after night about some of the things that happened to him in his life.  His first wife, Phyllis committed suicide in 1976 and the song In the Shape of a Heart, in particular, is about that tragic experience.  Rather than just be defeated, Jackson chooses to write down his feelings and put them to music.  And the performance, I guess,  provides a sense of theraputic  relief.  I honestly don’t know, how he does it.  We’re all wired differently.

“Funny what you remember about a city.” Jackson quipped when talking about a previous visit to Grand Rapids in 1986.  ”The river is very memorable and I did my laundry here.”

Jackson played for about three hours with a 15 minute intermission.  He didn’t disappoint his faithful following.  I really appreciated “For a Dancer”, “In the Shape of a Heart” and his final number, “Before the Deluge”.  He even entertained the crowd with a “rehab” version of “Cocaine”, where he recognized the errors of  his mis-spent days.  And I had to chuckle when he showed his idealism by singing, “Hypocracy makes me sick”

Nostalgia?  Don’t think so. Rather than  finding myself  stuck in the middle of a Jackson Browne song, I spent a nice evening,  just enjoying listening to someone who  has the courage to reach down deep from his soul and sing some great music.

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