Though she was just a one-song surprise guest, sitting in on “Call It a Loan” with Jackson Browne and her long-ago bandmate Larry Campbell, Austin singer Shawn Colvin summed up the nature of this evening nicely: “What’s better than being in your town with your friends singing a Jackson Browne song with Jackson Browne?”
For more than two hours, a near-full house at Bass Concert Hall concurred: To paraphrase the chorus from one of Browne’s newest songs, if they could be anywhere right now, they would want to be here. Backed by a band that included two ace-in-the-hole multi-instrumentalists — not only Campbell, who opened the show with his wife Teresa Williams, but also Greg Leisz — Browne showed why he’s the quintessential singer-songwriter of folk-rock’s golden era.
More than half the set came from albums at least 35 years old, but Browne also challenged the audience with newer material, including five songs from last year’s “Standing in the Breach.” You could tell which ones his fans were more psyched about: Partial standing ovations followed the 1970s standouts “For Everyman,” “For a Dancer” and “Fountain of Sorrow,” while a late-set triptych from the new record of “Which Side,” “If I Could Be Anywhere” and “Standing in the Breach” received a comparatively lukewarm reception.
But one of his new songs was a clear early highlight. “The Long Way Around” catches Browne deftly balancing the personal and the political: Early, he takes stock of his own life – “I made my breaks and some mistakes, just not the ones people think I made” – but as the verses progress, he broadens his view: “It’s hard to say which did more ill, Citizens United or the Gulf oil spill.” Musically, the song drifts on distant echoes of his oft-covered teenage composition “These Days” (which he also played early in the show), but the message finds Browne still relentlessly pushing into the present and future.
Bassist Bob Glaub and drummer Mauricio Lewak locked down the rhythm behind Campbell, who played fiddle and mandolin as well as acoustic and electric guitars, and Leisz, who bounced from lap and pedal steel to acoustic and electric guitar to weissenborn. A secret weapon was keyboardist Jeffrey Young, who occasionally played accordion and was magnificent on backing vocals along with singer Alethea Mills.
Browne mostly played guitar but moved to the piano for a handful of old favorites, most notably a memorable performance of “The Pretender” near the end of the show. “Running on Empty” followed, bringing the audience to their feet to conclude the main set. They stayed there for the predictable encore “Take It Easy,” but a nice surprise was the segue straight into “Our Lady of the Well,” tied together just as the two songs are on Brown’s 1973 album “For Everyman.” Near the end, all the instrumentalists got one more turn in the spotlight on a parting tune that fittingly stressed exquisite melodic songcraft — the hallmark of Browne’s artistry.
He’s also a class act: He appeared a few minutes before the 8 p.m. starting time, much to the surprise of concertgoers who’d gotten to their seats early, just so he could personally introduce Campbell and Williams’ opening set. They played for 40 minutes and delighted the crowd with originals and a sweet version of the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Running Wild,” which Campbell explained he’d first played decades ago in a band with Colvin and renowned guitarist Buddy Miller.
Campbell sprinkled the set with similarly illuminating recollections tied to Texas (playing in Doug Sahm’s band) and New York (working extensively with Levon Helm in Woodstock). Browne’s band backed the duo for most of their set, and Williams later sang with Browne a bit too, most notably a gorgeous lead turn on “My Opening Farewell” from his 1972 debut album.
Jackson Browne set list:
1. Barricades of Heaven
2. Just Say Yeah
3. The Long Way Around
4. Leaving Winslow
5. These Days
6. My Opening Farewell (Teresa Williams, lead vocal)
7. Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded (Warren Zevon cover)
8. For Everyman
9. I’m Alive
10. For a Dancer
11. Fountain of Sorrow
12. Call It a Loan (Shawn Colvin, lead vocal)
13. Which Side
14. If I Could Be Anywhere
15. Standing in the Breach
16. Looking East
17. The Pretender
18. Running on Empty
19. Take It Easy
20. Our Lady of the Well