Is Jackson Browne developing more faith in his songs? Whatever the reason, he’s singing them with less and less help.
When I first saw him, in the early 1970s at the RPI Fieldhouse, he had a seven-piece band but wasn’t in control of it. All ace players, they knew his songs, but he didn’t yet know how to integrate things.
Soon, he did. He became a bandleader as well as a singer-songwriter and guitarist. “Running On Empty,” recorded in 1976 (including a few songs at SPAC) and released the next year, ranks among rock’s best live singer-songwriter albums.
On that terrific record, Browne knew just what to do with his band, his songs and his voice. It all fit so beautifully that it still sounds fresh and compelling.
Browne also co-stars on a new and very fine live set: “All My Friends: Celebrating the Songs & Voice of Gregg Allman.” Browne is one of many guest rock, folk and country stars on this all-star, two-CD and one DVD tribute. He duets with Allman on “These Days.”
Over time, Browne has pared songs down to their bones onstage, singing mostly with longtime accompanist-and-master-of-all-stringed-things David Lindley or simply solo. And he makes it work: Recent shows here have hit our year-end best lists.
Browne plays it both ways on the tour that brings him to the Palace Theatre (19 Clinton Ave. at N. Pearl St., Albany) tonight. He’ll perform solo, playing new songs from “Standing in the Breach” (due Oct. 7; his 13th release). Next month his band joins him on the road).
Show time for Jackson Browne solo at the Palace is 8 p.m. Admission is $100, $70.50, $50.50 and $40.50. 800-745-3000 www.palacealbany.com.
Isbell AT MASSMoCA
If I were to treat myself to a show on my birthday tomorrow instead of cooking Turkish food with family and friends, it would be Jason Isbell at MASSMoCA.
“The former Drive-By Trucker drives his own truck now on solo albums,” I wrote of his album “Southeastern” in last year’s top album picks.
“He cruises down Dixie dirt roads as country-rocking as his former bandmates do, but that’s just his sound. His words face down deeper, harder truths than most songwriters have the courage to try.”
I think I underrated this wise, deep music. Isbell sings about the lives of the displaced and disappointed, people pushed to the edge by cancer or criminal impulses, poor in their prospects but proud in their struggles. He portrays with compassionate candor those who escape — or not — from too-narrow lives, substance abuse and very specific deaths waiting in a Super-8 motel.
Alabama born and raised, Isbell has said, “The soul music that came out of there, and a lot of the soul-influenced rock and roll and country music that came out of the studios in north Alabama in the ’60s and ’70s, had a big influence on me.”
After six albums and years on tour with the Drive-By Truckers (who play The Egg on Oct. 19), Isbell divorced, sobered up, re-married and formed a new band for the second and third of his four solo albums. Named for a psychiatric hospital, the 400 Unit is Isbell, guitar and keyboards; bassist Jimbo Hart; guitarist Sadler Vaden; keyboardist Derry deBorja, drummer Chad Gamble and fiddler Amanda Shires, Isbell’s wife.
Isbell recorded his superb “Southeastern” last year with a slightly different band, but I betcha he plays tomorrow with the 400 Unit. 8 p.m. in Courtyard C; rain site: Hunter Center. $24, advance; $30 on Friday. 413-662-2111 www.massmoca.org
Sad, just sad
Johnny Ray Allen played The Egg on July 26 as part of the reunited original subdudes; playing really well but singing little. He died suddenly last Friday at home in New Orleans at just 56, possibly from a heart condition.
His wife, Martha Allen, said Johnny Ray was delighted with the subdudes’ reunion, and he seemed happy on stage at The Egg. Before this recent reunion, Allen hadn’t played with the subdudes since 1996 when the original quartet split.
When I talked with subdudes guitarist Tommy Malone back then, he called Allen (bandmate in the subdudes and Tiny Town) “the character who’s no longer here,” bitter residue blocking him from even saying Allen’s name. Allen now is permanently “the character who’s no longer here,” so soon after he’d rejoined his old band-mates.
Comic actor Robin Williams opened for Bobby McFerrin at the RPI Fieldhouse in the 1980s, a consummate performance in words and gestures that matched McFerrin’s set for soulfulness. McFerrin was a musical instrument, voice and body tuned to song. Williams was also an instrument in himself, a huge, restless, rude and rowdy talent.
He transmuted a headful of electric-fast observations and attitude into jokes. He has said he learned that attitude from Jonathan Winters, that the whole world is available for play. All of reality, of culture and human emotion, it all just waits to be toys.
On Monday, Williams died of asphyxiation, a suicide at just 63, in his northern California home.
Millions will mourn Williams, famed worldwide from TV, standup and films.
Allen leaves one of our greatest bands without its main songwriter and strong rhythm section partner in its grooves and grace, just at the hopeful moment when the subdudes seemed on the brink of reclaiming their original punch and poignancy.
Sad, just sad.
Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at email@example.com.