Taking over James Taylor’s longtime spot as soft-rock superstar of the summer at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Jackson Browne bathed his boomer-age fans in big-time, beautiful pathos on Friday.
Browne arrived a day early for Friday’s show, quietly slipping into the Van Dyck on Thursday night to see longtime guitar compadre David Lindley rip it up on more stringed instruments than most music stores might carry. Browne didn’t perform on Thursday, choosing instead to protect his voice, he said softly. However, all his voice was in play at SPAC on Friday — a narrow, nimble baritone beautifully suited to his self-regarding but not self-centered or self-glorifying songs.
All were in the shape of a heart — widening from a point of personal pain or puzzlement or pride to embrace the audience in curves of melody and sincerity. Most were slow, but seldom felt slack, and the dominance of the slow and the earnest gave upbeat blitzes big impact. All were more than expertly detailed, like a fine, vintage car, by his exceptionally skilled band.
“I’m Alive,” he proclaimed to start, and his majestic encore of “I Am A Patriot” did what every encore should: it erupted into the really funky “It’s Your Thing,” then came home to “Patriot,” with “Stay” cruising everybody to oldies ecstasy.
Love and its loss led the way through Browne’s two-set show. He pledged “I’ll Do Anything” in the first set and pleaded “Just Say Yeah” in the second. He immersed himself in a “Fountain of Sorrow” and begged “Rock Me in the Water.” The mainly downbeat first set turned cheerful at the end with “Take It Easy,” reclaimed from the Eagles.
Taylor typically announces a break after what he pronounces “a perfectly adequate first set,” and if Browne’s first flowed convincingly and perfectly adequately through mostly melancholy moods, he unleashed something stronger and stranger in the second.
Two tunes in, “Doctor My Eyes” harvested heavy-duty nostalgia and recognition applause, but when it slowed and seemed to lose steam, singers Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills — newly added to Browne’s otherwise 16-year-old band — lifted it back up again to stunning effect. If this was soft rock, it was soft rock that went to the gym and toughened way up. “Lives in the Balance” was almost as strong, but “Going Down to Cuba” confused with its incongruous country lope. All the energy was back, mainly courtesy of ace guitarist Mark Goldernberg (who was brilliant all night), with “Red Neck Friend,” then “The Pretender” truly sealed the deal.
As usual, Browne loosened up throughout the show, generating more energy with guitar than at the piano. Bassist Kevin McCormick and drummer Maurizio Lewak were thunder itself, and keyboardist Jeff Young was at his atmospheric best on organ and on synthesizer emulating a clavinet in “It’s Your Thing.”
The audience loosened up, too, and seeing this helped relax Browne. But as he did, the energy rose and rose, and it peaked just right.