Jackson Browne plus David Lindley more than sum of parts

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

September 24, 2010

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

Jackson Browne may represent the ultimate singer-songwriter from the ultimate singer-songwriter era: Los Angeles in the early 1970s. But like every good story, there’s a better back story, and in Browne’s musical biography that constitutes David Lindley, the guitarist who provided the perfect emotional counterweight in his playing to Browne’s melancholic lyrics and sad, thoughtful vocals.

Lindley’s guitar stopped being heard on Browne’s albums once synthesizers started being heard on them — it was the 1980s, after all — and the two musicians only just recently regrouped for a live album and now a tour. Because Browne’s name still tops the bill and the set list had no surprises, the sold-out show at the Chicago Theatre on Thursday was less a reunion than a revisiting of a signature sound between two collaborators that neither recaptured in their 30 years apart.

The show started casually, with Browne and Lindley sitting together alone and trading vocals and guitar moments, the latter raised to new heights due to Lindley’s preference for antiquated string instruments. Playing an oud, the guitarist introduced a Middle Eastern twang to songs he never recorded (“Looking East”) while the nasal whine in his vocals set tremors while set against the comforting polish of Browne’s own.

Although just seven songs long, the acoustic set raised the bar too high for the remainder of the show to reach. The interplay of lush fingerpicking between both players caused “Call It a Loan” to glow while, alone and playing a modified bouzouki, Lindley layered an ancient blues song (Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man”) with psychedelic drones and high-octave flourishes.

When Lindley returned as a member of Browne’s band, he reprised his best-known roles. His solo entrances on songs like “Your Bright Baby Blues” (dedicated by Browne to Chicago’s Steve Goodman) and “Fountain of Sorrow” became star turns. Playing lap steel guitar, Lindley let the few notes he played hang back until crashing down on them with his slide, punctuating the emotional distress of Browne’s lyrics. On “For a Dancer,” his simple but expressive choices also transferred to fiddle. His oud playing also freshened songs he never originally recorded, like “Too Many Angels.”

Through his involvement the songs became more like suites, but for most of the night, Lindley blended into the background as a dutiful and subdued side player where he was underutilized, or not at all.

The three-hour show spun into several corners it took time to unwind from, but all was recharged during “Mercury Blues,” a mid-century boogie blues stomp that — besides an ironic postcard to an automotive brand that just got sent to the graveyard — showed how a single player can help rev up a band that was otherwise conditioned to delivering elegant gloom.

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