Jackson Browne review, Santa Barbara: 50 years after his debut, America’s finest singer-songwriter remains a magical presence

·3-min read
 (Getty)
(Getty)

Few California singer-songwriters are as adored as Jackson Browne. Despite being born in Germany to an American serviceman, Browne has been synonymous with the golden state since the Sixties. Raised in the now overwhelmingly hip Los Angeles neighbourhood of Highland Park, he began his career as a teenager in the city’s famous folk clubs, before a short stint in New York with his lover and collaborator, Nico. He returned to LA when he was still only 19 and found himself at the centre of a blossoming folk-rock scene that included his friends Linda Ronstadt and Glenn Frey of the Eagles. Ever since, Browne’s emotive Laurel Canyon-adjacent sound has moved seamlessly with the decades, from swooning Seventies ballads to his Eighties rockers – not to mention a surprising experiment with reggae. Later came more socially conscious work, such as his 2020 benefit album for Haiti. There have also been numerous environmentalist initiatives and a longstanding pledge to make his tours “green”.

Tonight, he’s taking his “Evening With” run of shows to Santa Barbara, a scenic beachside town just up the coast from Los Angeles. Browne wastes no time in telling the crowd how much he likes it here. “We’ve played a lot of places on this tour,” he says, grinning. “They were OK, but they weren’t Santa Barbara.” It’s easy to see why he’s so keen on this particular location – for the opening of his set, the moon rises behind the statuesque silver birch trees that surround the open-air stage, which was carved into this lush hillside in the 1930s.

Sporting the same simple all-American uniform he’s had for over six decades – blue jeans and a flannel shirt – he spends the next three hours charming the well-heeled crowd with endearing, spontaneous chatter. There are songs too, radiant and sincere. They come from his eponymous 1972 debut (“Jamaica Say You Will”, “Rock Me on the Water”, “Doctor My Eyes”) and include 1974’s heartbreaking “Fountain of Sorrow”, which is long rumoured to be about his short affair with Joni Mitchell. There’s even 1980’s “That Girl Could Sing”, which he winkingly remembers as being “about the first girl I ever saw driving a Jeep”.

A tender, lap-steel assisted rendition of “These Days” – written when Browne was just 16 and covered by Nico in 1967 – renders the Santa Barbara Bowl near-silent, while moody break-up anthem “Late For The Sky” tugs on the heartstrings with unnerving force. But Browne also still knows how to have fun. “Take It Easy”, which he co-wrote with Frey and became one of the Eagles’ biggest hits, is introduced with an anecdote about how playing it live used to bother him, as everyone thought it was a cover. “Anyway,” he smirks, before launching into the Americana classic, “here’s my Eagles cover.” Half a century into his career, Jackson Browne proves he’s far from running on empty.