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Beyond Nostalgia: Jackson Browne Sings for "These Days," Too

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Jackson Browne, the iconic singer-songwriter frozen in the 1970s amber memories of baby boomers everywhere, is still creating and performing music as vital and ageless as he appears in concert. Forever thin, dark-haired and singing with a textured, plaintive voice that is as captivating when the public first heard him sing "Doctor My Eyes" in 1972, it is only the lines in his face glimpsed in close-ups that give away that he is no longer a young man. But he is still singing his heart out with that blend of graceful melodies and introspective, socially conscious lyrics.

His August tour ends in Indianapolis and Cleveland Heights this week, but picks up again in October, highlighted by an appearance at the Kennedy Center in Washington for The Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration Concert. He's joining an incredible roster of talent including Rosanne Cash, Judy Collins, Ry Cooder, John Mellencamp, Del McCoury, the Dropkick Murphys, Ani DiFranco and one of Woody's first acolytes, Ramblin' Jack Elliott.

Browne has remained active as a songwriter and activist, and this summer and fall, he has been touring with Sara Watkins as his opening act; the Grammy-winning, sweet-voiced fiddler from the group Nickel Creek is moving into Alison Krauss territory with her concert performances and new album blending bluegrass with a pop sensibility.

Today, Jackson Browne is among the very few members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen, who still produce songs that can stand with their earlier work.

Indeed, Browne continues to be a touchstone for many of the most important new acoustic performers on the scene, including Dawes, with whom he performed and co-wrote a song for the Occupy Movement, and Jonathan Wilson. His role as an influential guru for today's new folk musicians was acknowledged this year when he headlined the Newport Folk Festival.

At a recent concert at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia, he continued to entrance the audience, although it skewed a good deal older than the young folkie taste-makers in California who have embraced him.

At times, when some unruly members of the audience shouted out "Play something from the '70s," or catcalled for "Doctor My Eyes," he responded, "We've somehow left the '70s and moved on." He still played plenty of his most memorable songs from the '70s. But after that comment, he launched into "In the Shape of a Heart" from 1986's Lives in the Balance, with the pointed lyric: "It was a time I won't forget/For the sorrow and regret," seemingly referring to his tumultuous relationship with Daryl Hannah -- but also serving as a reminder of the times the rest of us have left behind as well.

Listen to Jackson Browne's "In the Shape of a Heart":

Yet as soon as the second song of his set, he showed that he could still craft a potential masterpiece. He sat at the piano, playing minor-key majestic chords, and launched into a brand-new, still unrecorded song inspired by his humanitarian visits to hurricane-torn Haiti, "Standing in the Breach." He began singing, "Although the Earth may tremble and our foundation crack, we are all assembled and we will build them back..." It was clear that the new song was touching on far more than the specific disaster and relief failures in Haiti, but was offering, amid the terrible times all around us, some notes of hope and grace in a way that was inescapably moving. I found it particularly touching because it also reminded me of the first time I heard him sing "The Pretender." He was touring along with Linda Rondstadt and The Eagles on behalf of the 1976 Democratic primary campaign of Jerry Brown, and they stopped off to give a fund-raising concert at the nondescript Capital Center arena in Largo, Maryland, a suburb of Washington. It turned out to be an evening of great music, with Rondstadt at her enchanting peak and before most of us knew enough to despise the Eagles as corporate sell-outs. But perhaps the highlight of the evening came when Jackson Browne moved to the piano, told us he'd just finished up a new song in the studio -- months before it was released -- that he wanted to play for us. "I hope you like it," he said modestly, and we soon heard wafting through the speakers this overwhelming song that we knew immediately, in a way one rarely does on hearing a brand new song in concert, was a masterpiece. In fact, it seemed on that night that Jackson Browne became the first major cultural figure to directly address the ruins of dashed '60s hopes scattered all around the fading troops of the counter-culture, newly enmeshed in the grim new "struggle for the legal tender," as he named it. The song surely still speaks to some young adults who are looking to find their way and hold on to their dreams in the even grimmer economic realities in post-crash America, after the short-lived, high-flying promise of "Hope and Change" has crashed to earth.

At Wolf Trap, Jackson Browne ended his set, showcasing his rich repetoire, with the song he co-wrote with Glenn Frey that that became the Eagles' first hit, "Take It Easy." Joined by Sara Watkins and members of both bands, it was not just a reminder of his past and ours, but a joyous affirmation -- greeted by a standing ovation -- of the possibilities that can still lie ahead, just down the road.

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This article was adapted from a piece that appeared originally in Oregon Music News, the Northwest's leading all-genre music publication.