Jackson Browne, Sara Watkins
North Charleston Performing Arts Center
July 15

Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne’s relaxed and amiable performance in North Charleston on Sunday night confirmed that his range is diminished neither by his age (63) nor his ongoing love for bittersweet love songs, harmonically sophisticated anthems, and So-Cal-style protest tunes. To a fairly full room at the PAC, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer played piano and guitar with accompaniment from a small backing combo, delivering a lengthy set that covered both sides of his repertoire.

In recent years, Browne has collaborated with a mix of like-minded songsmiths on tribute recordings and benefit concerts. Some are old friends from his folk-rock generation (David Crosby, Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, etc.) while others are younger artists in the indie, soul, and alt-country songwriting scenes (Dawes, Lizz Wright, Sarah Lee Guthrie). Browne invited one of his newer musical acquaintances, singer/fiddler Sara Watkins (formerly of bluegrass/pop band Nickel Creek), to support him on this summer tour. The two had previously performed and recorded together over the last few years, so it was a natural fit.

Cheerful and charming, Watkins was totally at ease during her opening set. Fresh from a Prairie Home Companion concert last week, she chatted with the audience, took requests, and kidded her bandmates as they switched and adjusted their instruments. Watkins also handled the melodies and harmonies with cool authority, and she dazzled with several fiddle solos that demonstrated her virtuosity. She and her band bounced through much of her new collection, Sun Midnight Sun, adding a few surprises and covers along the way, including an upbeat rendition of John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Days.”

Seated at a grand piano at mid-stage, Browne kicked off his show with a handful of mid-tempo numbers, setting the pace with his solid keyboard work. His voice was strong and eve better than I expected. “Black and White,” from the 1986 album Lives in the Balance, earned loud applause early on. He gradually picked up steam, switching from piano to one of the many acoustic six-strings arranged to the side.

Highlights included the melancholic and amusing “Live Nude Cabaret” (from his recent album Time the Conqueror), a cleverly stripped-down version of “Shape of a Heart” (also from Lives in the Balance), and an easy-going version of “These Days (from one of his earliest albums, 1973’s For Everyman). Toward the set’s end, he played another one of his early-era songs, “Take it Easy,” and gave Eagles frontman Glenn Frey a mild ribbing for that band’s rendition back in the day.

Through the last half of the show, some of the chattiest people in attendance seemed disconnected from what was happening on stage. Perhaps Browne’s laid-back delivery was too warm and mellow to hold their attention. But his most dedicated fans seemed transfixed, and they gave him a huge roar at the end of the night.

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