I've been hanging out with members of the Autism Self-Advocacy Network for the past 48 hours, so I want to say I'm perseverating over Jackson Browne. One of their great lines: "Where you are persistent, we perseverate...."
Anyway, I missed the Fred Martin & Levite Camp CD when it came around, and maybe that's why this new record is such a revelation to me. But my wife, Lauren, and I went to Browne’s band show in KC last night, and I feel what I've been hearing in this record was born out live. Lauren said, in fact, that she could see what I meant live (the jury's out from her on whether I'm crazy in my love of the record). But she did love the show.
The key thing really is the band, particularly its new members, Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills. They play much more than the role of back up singers. They take verses, including the closing lines of "Culver Moon," significant pieces of songs recast by Fred Martin like "About My Imagination," the "sister's" response on "I Am A Patriot," and that brand new verse about 9/11 that Fred Martin's band wrote for "Lives In the Balance."
Browne firmly anchors that stage, but it's hard to say he's the star of the show. He's not even star as director because the band feels like everyone in it is vibing off one another as a band. "I Am A Patriot" was one song that was more or less redefined for me by that kind of interplay, which segued into a version of "It's Your Thing," focused on the elections. "Drums of War" is particularly explosive live, with that great simple thing Jeff Young is doing over there on the keyboards (what, two notes?) adding just the dissonance to turn all the questions as they get asked.
They played most of the new album, which surprised the hell out of me, to an enthusiastic seemingly-packed house in Kansas City, Missouri. And after the absolutely gorgeous "Far from the Arms of Hunger," which became a powerful visual prayer with all of the musicians bathed in these moving rays of golden light that came and went throughout the evening, it was amazing to me to hear "The Pretender" and "Running on Empty" reborn as songs about the contradictions at the heart of rock and roll, conceding the glass half empty, rejoicing in the glass half full.
But the most powerful sounds and images of the night, again, I will associate with Morris and Mills. You couldn't take your eyes off of them for long, and that wasn't a bad thing; that seemed like the balance the show was striving for, the emphasis on listening more than anything, the sense that this was about musicians doing what they do, not an aging rock star.
And the central image of it all was, for me, Chavonne Morris holding those hands up in those rays of light at crucial moments throughout the night, moments of testifying and moments physically expressing some rapture in the music, and she would do this thing where her arms would spread wide, like she could gather all those rays of light between them, and then she would bring her hands together in a clap of joy or rage or frustration, and the shadows made a sort of visual thunderclap that punctuated some climax in the music. It wasn't just one move she did, but it is that image I have to hold onto to try to suggest the kinds of things she and Alethea did time and time again. Those moments were key pieces of music as powerful as any I've experienced. The whole show was a reminder of what music is at its best--healing, soothing and bracing and invigorating all at once.
Jackson Browne apparently just turned 60 (he responded to the crowd's "Happy Birthdays" by acknowledging his age, with a proud smile--"I wasn't sure I'd make it"). I'd be proud too if I were him still making space for this kind of music. Running into the sun indeed.