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How Jackson Browne proved he's a living legend at 'Austin City Limits' taping

Jackson Browne taping "Austin City Limits" at ACL Live on Wednesday.

Jackson Browne had already left the crowd at ACL Live plenty satisfied with a 90-minute set that spanned his five-decade recording career before he returned for two encores that added another half-hour to Wednesday's “Austin City Limits” taping. The sing-along medley of “The Load-Out”/“Stay,” which closes Browne’s 1978 semi-live album “Running on Empty,” served as a fitting finale — but it was the first encore that shed the most light on what has always made Browne so special as an artist.

Everybody knows “Take It Easy,” the song Browne co-wrote with Glenn Frey that became a top 20 hit for the Eagles in 1972. But when Browne recorded the song himself on 1973’s “For Everyman,” he wasn’t looking for a single. Instead, its three-plus minutes transitioned seamlessly through a richly melodic web of guitars into the album’s second track, “Our Lady of the Well.” The resulting seven-minute suite epitomizes the way Browne has made a career out of blending rootsy rock & roll with exquisitely lyrical singer-songwriter material.

Hearing Browne and his eight-piece backing crew build that transition onstage was pure magic. The crowd sang along joyfully to “Take It Easy,” then marveled as pedal steel ace Greg Leisz teamed with electric guitarist Val McCallum to gradually transform the chugging caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly. Browne’s voice brought it home: “It is a dance we do in silence, far below this morning sun/ You in your life, me in mine, we have begun.”

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Browne had taped “Austin City Limits” once before in 2002, when the show was still taped at Studio 6A on the University of Texas campus. He’s released three albums over the ensuing 19 years, not surprisingly working at a slower pace than he did in his younger days, when his first 17 years produced nine albums. But the latest, “Downhill From Everywhere,” came out this past summer, and he worked about half of those tracks into Wednesday’s set.

Jackson Browne had taped “Austin City Limits” once before in 2002.

Highlights among the new songs included the hard-driving title cut, written with Leisz and keyboardist Jeff Young; “A Human Touch,” written for the 2018 documentary film “5B” and performed Wednesday as a duet with co-writer Leslie Mendelson; and “My Cleveland Heart,” an upbeat rocker Browne wrote with McCallum. (The recent video for the tune features rising star Phoebe Bridgers, one of many young artists who has followed the trail Browne blazed for singer-songwriters in the ’70s.)

Browne will be 73 next month. He moves a little more carefully between guitar and piano, and his golden voice may be slightly burnished with age. But compared to others from the vanguard of rock’s classic era who are still recording and touring regularly, Browne stands out as an artist who’s very much young at heart. He’s still pushing for the causes he believes in, whether singing the sociopolitical new track “Until Justice Is Real” or speaking eloquently about immigrants in his introduction to “The Dreamer,” a moving number he wrote with Eugene Rodriguez and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo.

He’ll never escape his past, though, and that’s a good thing, because Browne may be more responsible for defining the singer-songwriter genre than any living artist outside Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. The near-full house (capacity was limited somewhat as part of the show’s COVID-19 protocol) appreciated the new songs but clearly loved the old ones.

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At this point, Browne’s five 1970s albums kind of blend together as one splendidly cohesive suite. He revisited eight songs from that era, bringing wide smiles all around for the early radio hit “Doctor My Eyes,” the oft-covered “These Days” (which he wrote when he was just 16), and the immaculately arranged, deeply emotional title tracks from 1974’s “Late for the Sky” and 1976’s “The Pretender.”

Jackson Browne, who's in his 70s, stands out as an artist who’s very much young at heart.

Throughout, Browne’s backing band enhanced the performance, always serving the songs. The well-traveled Leisz was essential on pedal steel, lap steel, acoustic guitar and electric guitar. McCallum handled most of the electric guitar lead runs, with Jason Crosby adding accents of piano (when Browne was on guitar) and violin plus occasional backing vocals.

Young, tucked in the back at stage right, served up sweet Hammond organ fills all night and stood out on several occasions as a support vocalist. Also essential as backing singers along the stage-left riser were Chavonne Stewart and Alethea Mills, who stepped out front alongside Browne for a couple of tunes mid-set. Holding down the rhythms were steady drummer Mauricio Lewak and fluid bassist Bob Glaub, who’s been with Browne since the 1970s.

Wednesday’s taping will premiere Nov. 13 as an hourlong “Austin City Limits” episode on PBS stations nationwide, including the Austin affiliate.

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Jackson Browne set list

1. "I’m Alive"

2. "Still Looking for Something"

3. "The Long Way Around"

4. "Fountain of Sorrow"

5. "Downhill From Everywhere"

6. "My Cleveland Heart"

7. "In the Shape of a Heart"

8. "The Dreamer"

9. "Until Justice Is Real"

10. "These Days"

11. "A Human Touch"

12. "Doctor My Eyes"

13. "Late for the Sky"

14. "The Pretender"

15. "Running on Empty"

Encore 1:

16/17. "Take It Easy/Our Lady of the Well"

Encore 2:

18/19. "The Load-Out/Stay"