It seems plausible that Jackson Browne has a crumbling portrait in his attic somewhere. But whatever Dorian Gray-style wizardry — and longtime barber — the revered singer-songwriter is employing to look and sound nearly identical to his youthful self is nothing compared to the agelessness of his songs.
Saturday night, over the course of two sets that clocked in at nearly 2½ hours, Browne reminded a packed Opera House — full of enthusiastic fans clearly in no need of reminding but thrilled to have it — just how powerful his catalog of brilliant musical observations is, with just his warm linen voice, a rumbling piano, and a guitar. Strike that, nearly two dozen guitars lined the back of the otherwise unadorned stage.
A sheepish Browne chuckled a bit when talking about “the shameless display of guitar wealth” and needing all of those instruments to perform a solo show (Well, almost solo: Browne’s guitar tech Manny Alvarez materialized in a hurry to add some electric sting to “Doctor My Eyes” near night’s end.) But those guitars gave him the flexibility he needed, each one full of songs waiting to be played as Browne improvised his way through his set list.
Following his own compass — aided occasionally by numerous shouted requests — Browne reached all the way back to his 1972 debut for both “Doctor” and the contemplative “Looking Into You” — also the title of a new all-star Browne tribute album.
He looked to the future with a pair of tracks from his forthcoming album, due in October, including the piano ballad “Birds of St. Marks” — prefaced by a lengthy anecdote about trying and failing to reunite the Byrds to play on it — and the nostalgic “Leaving Winslow,” as in Arizona, whose famous street corner he revisited during a buoyant encore rendition of “Take It Easy,” the Eagles hit he wrote with Glenn Frey and later recorded himself.
And he played many of the songs that came between, songs expertly detailing the joys, agonies, and comedies of intimacy and existence: the revving ode to the road “Running on Empty,” an emotionally crushing version of “In the Shape of a Heart,” recalling the stark disillusion that accompanies romantic dissolution, the politically charged “Looking East,” and the stately closing anthem, “Before the Deluge.”
If there were a couple too many soporific tracks in the first set, the livelier second set and overall effect was captivating as Browne’s voice tied it all together.
Toward the end of the night, when he would open up his upper register and reach for the sky, it was almost as if Browne could take the audience aloft with it,
ascending on the backs of the notes of “Fountain of Sorrow” and “The Pretender,” reminding everyone of the transporting power of song.