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REVIEW: Jackson Browne’s Still Got Steam (State Theatre)

A collage of recording artist Jackson Browne’s numerous album covers.

Jackson Browne’s concert last Tuesday at the State Theatre in Minneapolis demonstrated that he is in fine voice and far away from running on empty. The concert provided fans a golden opportunity to hear the best examples of Browne’s more than 45 years of songwriting. The audience paid close attention to Browne’s thoughtful lyrics and rhythmic circle-of-fifths melodies as he reiterated his views on racism, environmental degradation, and frustrations in the quest for truth, justice, and true love.

Jackson Browne has always taken his performances very seriously. In past concerts, he would often admonish audience members about concert-going etiquette with instructions to quit yelling song titles, sit down, and pay attention. At this concert, he was mellower and notably chose not to respond to an audience member who repeatedly interrupted with the phrase “F— Trump”.

Browne’s more subdued response on today’s politics stands in contrast to the days when he recorded concept albums to protest the policies of then-President Ronald Reagan. This is not to say that he is silent on political matters; his rendition of Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” was obviously a comment on the present political situation in our nation’s capital.

Browne’s song selection was also in obvious support of immigrant rights. On stage, he introduced us backup singers Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart. He recounted how he met Mills and Stewart when they were part of a singing group of Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant students in San Francisco – a group that recorded covers of some of Jackson’s songs. He embraced their crosscultural perspective when he had them add the last verse of Jackson’s song “Lives in the Balance”, a song about the state of the American Dream in 1986. The song seems just as (if not more) relevant today.

Jackson’s support of progressive immigration issues, including the fate of DACA recipients, was also apparent from his performance of the song “The Dreamers”. Browne wrote this song in collaboration with Eugene Rodriguez, a friend of Linda Ronstadt and the director of Los Cenzontles, a cultural organization in California dedicated to educating Mexican-American students about their music heritage.

Browne’s band included Bob Glaub on bass, Mauricia Lewark on drums, Shane Fontayne on guitar, Jeff Young on keyboards and acclaimed musician Greg Leisz on lap steel and pedal steel guitars. For this concert, Leisz’ s wife, Mai, a well-known European pop and rock artist in her own right, played guitar in an ethereal style for an extended interlude.

The performance stage was a striking lighting environment. Multi-colored LED’s and a multi-textured reflective backdrop created shafts of light and waves of color that corresponded to the mood and movement of the music. At times, the band was silhouetted behind Browne, but with “Doctor My Eyes” and other well-known Browne songs, each band member was equally highlighted.

Vocals, musicianship, poeticness and visual artistry came together most effectively in the Browne’ performances of “These Days” and “In the Shape of a Heart”. A 16-year old Browne wrote “These Days” and his rendition of the song last week was a moving dramatic soliloquy reflecting on a musical career of nearly fifty years. “In the Shape of a Heart” was performed with incredible stage presence and musical astuteness. With his distinctive rhythmic phrasing, Browne succinctly symbolized the end of a romance by describing the fate of a ruby necklace: “Dropped it into the wall/I let it go and heard it fall”.

Throughout the concert, Browne bantered with the audience, mentioning his work with Crosby, Stills, and Nash; his relationship with Linda Ronstadt; and song contributions recorded by The Eagles. This banter emphasized Brown’s important role in the history of rock, which led to his admission to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

The crowd justifiably went wild when it heard the first notes of “The Pretender” rise from Browne’s piano. At one time, the song was an anthem of disillusionment, but last Tuesday it took on the positive air of a hymn for the redemption of America.

Near the end, Browne reverted to his Miss Manners-type of audience admonishment when he interrupted his concert to diffuse a verbal altercation between an audience member and a security person near the stage. Browne reminded security staff that seating protocol is loosened towards the end of a concert, then invited both the audience and theatre security to sit down and enjoy his next song.

Dan Reiva

Daniel P. Reiva (Staff Reviewer) is a Twin Cities theatre professional. Prior to joining the Twin Cities Arts Reader, he wrote for the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

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