Perched before the family computer as a kid, it’s small speakers blaring, I’d gaze through the window at the snow-draped backyard, the winter’s sun offering scant warmth against the cold of a Minnesotan winter. In those days, YouTube was in it’s infancy, a far cry from today’s video factory. It was mostly used then for people to upload homemade lyric videos and slideshows crafted on Windows Media Player, becoming a modern day path of music discovery that deviated from the classic paths of vinyl, cassettes, and radio broadcasts that previous generations tread.
For some reason, there was a treasure trove of Jackson Browne music and photos that accompanied it in these early days of Youtube, all of which I became quite obsessed with during those formative years. Beyond the mainstream hits, I delved into bootlegs and deep cuts, immersing myself in the imagery of the 1970s captured by photographers like Lynn Goldsmith and Joel Bernstein. Their photos from the Running On Empty tour encapsulated a summer of concerts in the heartlands of America, portraying Browne and his band under the spell of the open road, recording tracks in the transient sanctity of motel rooms and large stages under a night sky. This was a romance of the touring life in the late seventies, a blend of road weariness and the allure of the next show that had me longing for the warmth of summer against the chill of a Minnesota winter – and also the travel. Thank goodness I wouldn’t discover Almost Famous until a decade later. Whoever put together those early youtube videos I watched then is a real saint.
Ever since then, nearly 15 years ago, I’ve often thought about finding an amphitheater to watch Jackson Browne at when on tour. But, time was never on my side to road trip somewhere to see that happen. Tonight, however, It finally materialized. While it wasn’t my first time seeing Jackson Browne, seeing him and his band in this outdoor setting like I had daydreamed during the cold Minnesota winters certainly made it feel special.
Opening with Somebody’s Baby, Jackson flawlessly performed the first song before humorously letting us know there was a shard of glass in his foot. “I broke a glass before I came on stage and completely forgot I was wearing socks” he laughed, then holding up the shard of glass from his foot. “Maybe I could sell this as a NFT? Or, they’ll probably frame it here. This is a piece of history. My life and blood is on this thing.” A few more songs in, he asked “How many of you are from Saint Cloud?” to which only a smattering of applause was heard above a booing crowd. “How about Minneapolis?” he asked, which received much more of an enthusiastic reply. It seems as though the vast majority of the crowd made the same trek up Highway 94 that I did earlier that afternoon.
The year-old Ledge Amphitheater just west of Saint Cloud is a blessing for many folks in the area looking for a large, outdoor theater. From the Twin Cities, it’s only an hour drive, which is not a bad trip considering similar outdoor theatre’s with consistent acts, like Treasure Island, Alpine Valley or Big Top Chautauqua are 3-7 hour trips. A large outdoor amphitheater thats not tied to a casino is both welcome and long overdue for Minnesota. What it lacks, however, is shade. Only the band and their crew were lucky enough to have some sort of sheltered overhang above them, while the crowd roasted on the concrete in today’s 98º heat, sans a wandering cloud that would provide momentary relief. Looks like I got the warm summer amphitheater show I dreamed for.
Perhaps the lack of the more conservative, rural St. Cloud crowd was a benefit to Jackson, who had included a handful of more politically motivated songs into the first set, many of which were met with good applause. Downhill From Everywhere and Until Justice is Real both come from Jackson’s latest record, the GRAMMY-nominated album Downhill From Everywhere. The last song of the first set, a Steven Van Zandt (Little Steven) cover of I Am A Patriot, Jackson interjected a couple of his own lyrics into the song, singing: “And I ain’t no Democrat (Actually) and I ain’t no Republican (Obviously) / I ain’t no racist and I ain’t no white supremacist / I only know one party and it is freedom”
The second set, taking place just after the sunset over the rock mound to our right, included more of the “Older stuff” Jackson teased, that fans may have been more familiar with. Opening with You Love The Thunder off of 1977’s Running on Empty album was a nice treat, a rarity in his setlists that’s only been brought back in more recent years. Other staples like These Days and Doctor my Eyes were welcome as well, including yet another blistering solo from guitarist Mason Stoops on Doctor My Eyes. I had mentioned in my last review of Jackson Browne, who opened for James Taylor in St. Paul this past November, that “ [Doctor my Eyes] has no reason to have that good of a solo” and the same was true for this show. Fans gave this one a standing ovation.
The last songs of the night were the ones fans had all been waiting for, and it could not have been better timed. With the sun now gone, it had begun to cool off considerably, and fans stood up from their chairs to dance and sing to The Pretender, Late for The Sky, and Running on Empty, with fun musical interplay between pedal steel and guitarist Greg Leisz and Mason Stoops.
“I learned this song the same way you did” Jackson smiled “By singing along to it when it came on in the car” Before performing the encore Take it Easy, originally co-written with Glenn Frey, becoming a mega-hit from The Eagles debut album. Since Frey’s passing in 2016, Jackson has been including the song in more of his setlists. Jackson’s version of the song, besides a couple of word changes, includes more pedal steel than the Eagles take on the song, and includes a transition into Lady of the Well on his album version. He did the same transition into Lady of the Well tonight, which was a surprise “deep cut” of sorts for die-hards of Jackson Browne, and perhaps a surprise for people unfamiliar with his album version. After a brief exit from the stage, he returned again for his signature sign-off, The Load Out, beginning solo at his piano. Fans put their phones in the air, and amazingly remained mostly silent, which was reminiscent of the original live version of the song, where you only hear later on that it’s being performed live. It transitioned into Stay as it normally has, with his band returning to the stage before it’s big crescendo, this time with a much longer outro and a very fun, extended pedal steel solo from Greg Leisz. It’s apropo that Stay felt like the longest song of the night.
Perhaps the best part of an amphitheater show is being able to watch your surroundings change as the night goes on. The stage lights get brighter, the sky gets darker, and the stars come out overhead. If you look deep enough, there’s a story told in concert setlists, and the setting of the nighttime can really help tell that story well beyond the limitations of a covered venue. That’s part of what made Dead and Company shows special when I saw them at Alpine Valley Amphitheater a few years back, and it’s part of what made Jackson Browne’s show special tonight as well. The set was a great combination of his important, more recent work, alongside his classic, more self reflective material. On a personal level, being able to live out my childhood daydream of seeing this artist, at this venue, at this time of year also made this a special night. Cross another one off the bucket list.