Iconic singer-songwriter Jackson Browne played his first post-pandemic concerts in Santa Barbara as part of a mini warm-up tour before launching into a national co-headline tour with James Taylor. The long-time Santa Barbara County resident first played the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sunday, September 5th, and the venue's first live music event since before the pandemic. Browne then brought his roadshow to Central California’s most beautiful venue, the Vina Robles Amphitheater, on Wednesday, September 8th.
The show opened with a short set by one of Browne’s newest proteges, Leslie Mendelson. The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter played a folksy set of original material offering a pleasant voice hauntingly similar to a young Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne's most successful collaborator. Mendelson played guitar and harmonica and had a few nervous missteps that seemed to endear her more to the acquiescent crowd. However, she joked about her mistakes and reminded the audience that they were indeed fortunate enough to be hearing live music again. The young golden-throated singer returned during Browne's performance to play a soothing duet entitled “A Human Touch.” The song comes from Brown's new album, “Downhill From Everywhere," featuring the guest vocals of Mendelson.
Jackson Browne and his band of veteran musicians strolled onto the stage as soon as Mendelson sang her last note, making a seamless transition into the first of two marathon sets. Like Mendelson, Browne fumbled a bit throughout the evening and seemed more fragile than in the past. But the reason soon became apparent when he revealed that one of his band members had suffered a family tragedy since the first Santa Barbara Bowl show and had to be replaced with a new musician at the last minute. But the new guitarist seemed to fit right in with the masterful musicians in the band. The group included a standout performance by pedal steel/lap steel guitar master Greg Leisz (also from Santa Barbara County), whose familiar tones reminded the audience of another former Browne protege David Lindley. Browne had no problem capturing the rapt attention of the sold-out crowd once he began to sing but occasionally struggled to begin a song. At one point, he decided to forgo playing an untuned guitar and abruptly switched to the piano to deliver the tune. But just like Mendelson, his minor missteps just seemed to thrill the crowd knowing they were back in a real-time world of live music with a legendary musician who could easily transcend any obstacles thrown at him.
The two sets included much of the new album, which showcased Browne's continued prowess as a songwriter. But it was the well-known classic hits like “Doctor My Eyes,” “The Pretender,” and “Running On Empty” that brought the crowd to their feet in a sing-along session dissipating into the beautiful starry night over the mountainside venue.
Unlike the Santa Barbara Bowl show a few nights before that featured double encores, Browne chose to play right through the 11 pm curfew without an encore break at the Paso Robles show. The result was a bonus song for the Vina Robles crowd, with a set featuring 21 songs. Finally, of course, the show ended with the finale that has been Browne’s trademark since 1977, including “The Load-Out” followed by the classic sing-along anthem “Stay.” Again, the crowd sang loudly into the cool night air making for a spectacular ending to a marathon night of music.