Jackson Browne brought his signature melancholy, sensitive singer-songwriter style to the sold-out Saenger Theatre on Thursday night.
A big-selling recording artist in the 1970s and ’80s, Browne has since been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriter Hall of Fame. He came of age in song when many in Thursday’s audience came of age in life. His songs are part of his fans’ personal soundtrack.
But Browne’s forte is writing, not performing. That was obvious at the Saenger. He’s competent in concert but not particularly engaging.
Still, audience members were patient with Browne, a star of their youth who seemed much less interested in his back catalog than they were. At the Saenger, Browne classics such as “Tender Is The Night,” “Lawyers in Love” and “Somebody’s Baby” were in scarce supply. The singer, who turned 67 last week, preferred doing songs from his 2014 album, “Standing in the Breach,” and lesser-known material from his 40-plus years of writing and recording.
New songs from any artist who’s earned his stripes deserve some attention. Browne’s emphasis on the unfamiliar, though, taxed his audience’s forbearance. It’s not unusual for musicians to be weary of playing hits they’ve performed hundreds of times, but Browne’s reluctance to give the fans what they wanted was on the extreme side.
Fifteen songs into a two-hour show, Browne still hadn’t played the hits. When audience requests for old favorites grew louder and more frequent, he said, “But first...” and launched into another song the crowd probably didn’t want, a ponderous rocker at that.
Browne and his five-piece band — including longtime members Greg Leisz, who played guitar, lap steel and pedal steel; bassist Bob Glaub; and backing vocalist Alethea Mills — stepped on the stage with much promise. Their opening selection, the moody “The Barricades of Heaven,” from the 1996 album “Looking East,” set the tone for the show’s contemplative feel. “Barricades,” among other better latter-day Browne songs, does echo his ’70s and ’80s work.
Three songs in a row from Browne’s 2014 album followed. “Yeah Yeah” was almost upbeat, but then Browne and his band set a familiar mellow tempo during “The Long Way Around.”
“Leaving Winslow,” featuring his characteristic chord progressions, picked up the tempo a bit with a gentle train beat. Solos during “Leaving Winslow,” featuring Leisz’s liquidly expressive pedal steel guitar and Larry Campbell’s twangy, finger-picked Telecaster, sent the show’s often downbeat mood to a rare peak.
During a concert that concentrated on obscurities, “These Days,” a Browne composition originally recorded by gloomy ’60s chanteuse Nico, equaled a consolation prize. It got an especially warm reaction.
A performance of Warren Zevon’s “Mama Couldn’t Be Persuaded” linked Browne to his ’60s and ’70s peers Zevon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Carole King. Singer-guitarist Teresa Williams, who opened the show with her husband, Browne band member Campbell, joined in for a Cajun-flavored, upbeat reinvention of the Zevon song, featuring fiddle and accordion.
Even as the concert neared its end, Browne had not performed any of his hits. A guy in the back of the theater’s orchestra section yelled, “ ‘The Pretender,’ please!”
Browne finally delivered ’70s high-water marks “The Pretender,” “Doctor My Eyes” and, the number that finally got most of the audience standing for the first time, “Running on Empty.”
Those songs and “Take It Easy” — the song Browne co-wrote with Glenn Frey that was a hit for The Eagles — brought belated reward to his fans.