Written by Jane Ponte

Photos by Dave Clements

Last Friday night in Sugarland at approximately 8 pm, Jackson Browne walked onto the stage at The Smart Financial Center with just an acoustic guitar and launched into a bittersweet rendition of Warren Zevon’s “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” as his mostly older crowd settled in for a delightful evening of music and stories from his decades-long career. From my 5th row seat, I could feel the love for him immediately. The crowd erupted into applause, shouts and whistles even before he strummed his first chord, and the declarations of love for him from more than several women in the venue were both sweet and well-deserved. Jackson Browne has been a mainstay on the soundtrack of our lives and times, seemingly since forever. And if anything, he’s only gotten better as he’s grown older. It only seems fitting that his audience loves him—and if I’m being completely honest, I was one of the women who was professing my love for him the loudest.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has known me for even a short while. Browne’s music has had an impact on who I am as a person since my formative years, when I first heard the Jackson 5 do a cover of “Doctor, My Eyes.” I was 10 at the time. I did not understand the lyrics the way I do now, but I was mesmerized by them and wanted to know who wrote them. I think I was around 12 when my older sister brought home a copy of Browne’s first album, commonly (and mistakenly) referred to as Saturate Before Using, although it is actually a self-titled album with a picture of a burlap water bag with a silhouette of Browne’s face and the words “saturate before using” on the bag, hence the common misconception of the album’s title. Regardless, I’ve been a forever fan, following his storied career since the very beginning. My affection and reverence for him has never waned, and I would go so far as to dub him the artist whose music and message has had the most profound impact on my life and times up to this point. And being as I am almost 62 now, I seriously doubt that position will be taken over by any other artist anytime soon.

Sporting a closely cropped gray beard, a plaid cotton button down and jeans, Browne looked fit and trim, and his voice never sounded better. Despite having been down with an unidentified illness recently while touring in Australia and having had COVID at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, Browne appeared healthy, happy, and strong as he took his crowd along for a ride that spanned his entire career and showcased his vocal, guitar, piano and songwriting prowess and drew from nearly every album he’s released up to this point. The show was divided into 2 sets with a brief intermission between the two. The first set seemed to follow a setlist, whereas the 2nd set was a bit of a free-for-all, in the most joyous sense of the word. Several times throughout the 2nd set, Browne would begin one song, pause, and ask the audience what they wanted to hear. And aside from the one guy who wouldn’t quit asking for “Desperado,” (an Eagles tune that Browne had nothing to do with) Browne did his best to honor all requests, including cuts from both his newer and older releases. Personal favorites included “Barricades of Heaven,” “Take it Easy”>”Our Lady of the Well,” “These Days,” “The Pretender,” “Jamaica Say You Will,” and the Little Steven classic, “I am a Patriot.” Truth be told, however, it really did not matter to me what Browne played throughout the evening; I am a fan of his music, his message, and the causes he has backed throughout his life, so anything he would have chosen from his immense catalogue would have been perfectly fine with me.

I suppose one could say that deciding what to play might pose a problem for a songwriter as prolific as Browne; quite simply, he has so many great songs to choose from that there’s no way he could cover them all in the 2 tightly packed sets that seemed to end far too soon. He hit several high points from his career including “Redneck Friend,” “Late for the Sky,” “Running on Empty,” “For a Dancer,” and his closer, “The Load Out/Stay.” But if I’m being completely honest, I would have loved to have heard “Rock Me on the Water,” “Fountain of Sorrow,” or “Lives in the Balance.” But again, the show was so intimate, so perfectly executed, and so full of goosebump-inducing moments that it truly didn’t matter to me what he played, as long as he didn’t play “Desperado.” Even still, had he played it, I probably would have given him a pass.

Backed by his long-time cohort Greg Leisz on pedal, lap steel, and acoustic guitars, drummer Mauricio Lewak, bassist Mai Leisz, and Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart on background vocals, Browne sounded great inside the state-of-the-art venue that is Smart Financial. His vocals were clear and crisp, and the band’s individual talents were all showcased periodically and blended perfectly throughout each musical offering. Browne and his bandmates effortlessly took us all on a journey that simultaneously made us wistful for bygone days while filling us with sunny optimism for the future. Truly, the joy of this evening’s nearly 3-hour performance confirmed Browne’s role of visionary troubadour who is far from finished plumbing the depths of the human condition while shining a bright light into its dark corners. And much to the dismay of the guy shouting from the balcony, he never once had to utter a single word of “Desperado” in order to get the job done. Well done, JB. Hurry back soon.
~Jane Ponte