By MARK GUARINO Chicago Sun-Times
Somehow, the hair on Jackson Browne’s head still flops over one half his face before curling down to hang just above his shoulders. At 60, his boyish looks are not just evidence of good genes, they also give credence to the adolescent undercurrent of his best-known songs.
Thursday night at Ravinia — a sold-out show so sold-out every blade of grass seemed to have vanished — Browne performed songs with themes that in other hands would probably sound piped from a time capsule buried under a field of wilted roses. His early work deals with the wonderment and big hurts of early romance, so much so that when he performed them Thursday, it was as if he was reading old love letters he wrote when he was 21. Which should have been really awkward.
But what prevented that from happening were songs written by a young man that, at the time, were saddled with an old man’s insight. Singing them now, Browne imbued them with poignancy but also a cool confidence that mellowed their regrets.
A middle portion of the show was dedicated to “Late for the Sky,” his 1974 suite of songs that is poised for a complete live performance, a trend popularized by everyone from the Pixies to Van Morrison to Bruce Springsteen (who plans to play his entire “Born to Run” album live during a September tour). “I can do that, but then I’d know in advance what is going to happen, and that wouldn’t be as good for me,” Browne said.
Instead, Browne settled on four songs in a row from that album: “Late for the Sky,” “Fountain of Sorrow,” “The Late Show” and “For a Dancer.” Sitting at an electric keyboard in front of a six-member band, which included the excellent backup singers Alethea Mills and Chavonne Morris, he presented the songs in versions that were less ornate than their originals and more on edge — due to guitarist Mark Goldenberg, who chose not to duplicate the slurpy slide guitar of David Lindley in the original versions, but instead played unconventional and off-kilter fills.
There were new songs, as well: The best being “Going Down to Cuba,” a complaint about the travel embargo with a slight mambo beat. Browne hesitated to play others from his catalog that addressed politics, except he did do “Lives in the Balance,” written in the Reagan era. Despite an updated lyric referencing 9/11, its indictment of media complacency during wartime made the song sound contemporary.
Perhaps the unpredicted rebel move of the night was “Running on Empty,” his best-known hit from 1977. Just last week Browne received a settlement and apology from John McCain and the Republican party which appropriated the without permission for their losing presidential campaign.
Browne made no mention of the news before, during or after the song was played. But he did get a cheer when he followed up with “I Am a Patriot,” a cover of the Little Steven song, in which he sang, “I ain’t no democrat /and I ain’t no republican / I only know one party / and it is freedom.”
Mark Guarino is a Chicago-based journalist. Visit mark-guarino.com.