Take it easy? Not Jackson Browne

Aug 12, 2012

Jackson Browne did double duty Saturday at PNC Pavilion. Not only did the singer-songwriter thrill the crowd with entries from his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame songbook, but he served as emcee and gracious host of a rotating cast of characters that featured Sara Watkins, who opened the show and joined Browne for the second half of his set. 

Browne was the first person on stage Saturday, introducing Watkins with a string of compliments that by his own count included the word amazing at least four times. 

When he stepped into the spotlight after her set, it wasn’t with the hit tunes that audience members pleaded – loudly – for him to play, but others that were obviously special to him, including “Black and White,” “Standing in the Breach,” and “My Opening Farewell,” which featured Jack Willis, who Browne introduced as a old friend and bandmate who now lives in Columbus. 

The opening segment set a wonderfully relaxed mood as Browne mused on the origins of some songs, being a young musician, and the decision to bring friends on the road instead of another round of his recent solo acoustic tours that resulted in two live albums.

Browne has never been less than superb in concert, whether alone or with a band. But guitarist Val McCallum and drummer Fritz Lewak raised the energy level, and when Watkins, her brother Sean on guitar, and Tyler Chester on bass and keyboards   joined them on “The Late Show,” “Live Nude Cabaret,” and “I’ll Do Anything,” the star became an equal partner – well, maybe a little more equal – in the group effort.

As entertaining as the first 80 minutes were, however, it turned out to be just a prelude to “Running on Empty,” as the unmistakable opening notes brought fans to their feet. When Browne sang the lines, “In ’65, I was 17,” and “In ’69, I was 21,” a couple of thousand people flashed back to when they sang those words with the radio in 1977.

One person who didn’t was Sara Watkins, but Saturday she had the honor of singing the harmony that Rosemary Butler made famous on the original recording four years before the former Nickel Creek fiddler was born. Wherever she is, Butler can be proud of Watkins’ homage.

The players left the stage with cheers ringing in their ears, but they didn’t make people wait long to return to the glory days. As Browne finished the first verse of “Take It Easy,” he gently told the ushers to ignore the rules for the rest of the night, and “let these people have a good time.” Suddenly, standing (and dancing) in the aisles was permitted.

After the Watkins’ siblings finished turning the Eagles’ first hit into a bluegrass hoedown, Browne returned to the piano for “The Load Out,” smiling as he sang “Tonight the people were so fine,”  and “Before that last guitar’s been packed away, you know that I still want to play.” 

When Sara Watkins waited too long to take Butler’s part after the segue to “Stay,” the audience happily sang it for her. But when the chorus came around again, she was ready with her pitch-perfect voice. And no matter how hard the crowd wanted their friends to stay all night, like all good things, it finally came to an end.

Although Browne doesn’t perform as often as he once did, Sara Watkins has turned into a road warrior. She will return to town Oct. 13 to headline a Greater Cincinnati Performing Arts Society show at St. Xavier High School. 

That’s good news for fans, and it’s likely she made a slew of new ones Saturday. Her crystal clear delivery on songs from her “Sun Midnight Sun” album, especially “You’re the One I Love,” “When It Pleases You,” and the closing “I’m a Memory.” She turned in a solid show in June when she opened for Dawes at the Taft Theatre, but the addition of Chester, McCallum and Lewak brought the sound closer to that of the album. 

And it didn’t hurt that she had a pretty decent harmony singer on her final two songs. It was just another task that Browne did with a smile.  

Email Bill Thompson