By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
For certain singers, it’s all about the timbre.
More than the way they use their voice or even the music that accompanies it, it’s the unembellished tone of their vocal chords that defines them. If only subliminally, it’s that sound that speaks to us.
For example, James Taylor’s voice evokes comfort. Ozzy Osbourne’s evokes whatever the extreme opposite of comfort is. And for Jackson Browne, who comes to Miami Beach’s The Fillmore on April 9, it’s a quality of melancholy.
To rephrase a line from one of his most artful songs, Fountain of Sorrow — there’s “just a trace of sorrow” in his voice. You can hear it in his uptempo rockers like Take It Easy, political epistles like Lives in the Balance, and, of course, rainy-day laments like These Days, The Pretender or Here, the lyrical closer to 2014’s Standing in the Breach, his latest and 14th studio album. You can even hear it in the pop confection of his highest-charting single, Somebody’s Baby, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s just the nature of his vocal instrument.
But despite all the emoting, Jackson Browne is no emo artist. The boy wonder of ’70s singer-songwriters has never been bound by the tone of his voice or even by the tender introspections that first earned him fame. Polished by a poet’s sensitivity with a line and sprung from a ’60s counterculture consciousness, Browne’s songwriting has been transcendent.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in the social commentaries that have colored his later work — songs borne of a pacifistic, “for everyman” mentality, like his latest album’s title song or Where Were You?, a scathing, nearly 10-minute polemic on President Bush’s Hurricane Katrina fiasco.
“I don’t think I was able to get what I wanted to say politically into a song until I was about 30 or 35,” he told Britain’s The Telegraph upon the release of Standing in the Breach. “It’s daunting, given that the audience is not clamoring for political songs. The first time I wrote a political song, I woke up the next day and looked at what I had been writing and thought, ‘Oh no, I can’t be singing about politics — this is what I am interested in, but how can I expect it to come out in songs?’”
Safe to say it came out pretty well, as the political and the personal now have a fairly equitable share of his estimable repertoire. And last September his longtime involvement with various humanitarian causes — backed up with regular benefit concerts, most famously as an organizer of 1979’s No Nukes — earned him the Gandhi Peace Award from Promoting Enduring Peace. It was the first time an artist had been so honored.
Fortunately (or, rather, unfortunately), there’s no shortage of struggles to animate Browne’s muses. Indeed, for his most recent album cover, he selected a post-earthquake photo of Haiti. And his most recent single and video is The Dreamer, an empathetic, bilingual collaboration with Mexican-American artists about the immigration dilemma.
“I’m hoping people will get a stronger connection with the hopeful and virtuous and hardworking Americans they see this in this film,” Browne said in a Forbes interview. “I defy you to tell me which ones are the immigrants, and which ones are documented and which ones aren’t.”
For all of his advocacy, there’s no strident activism in Browne’s persona. Onstage, he often embraces audiences in between-numbers dialogue, wrapping soft-spoken stories around their shouted requests. Such should hold true for the acoustic Miami Beach show, when Browne’s guitar and piano will be accompanied by longtime bandmates and vocalists Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart and multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz.
File photo, courtesy