Jackson Browne, Steve Earle and Keb' Mo'


June 24, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Jackson Browne was 16 years old and something of a wunderkind in 1968 when he wrote a brilliant song called "These Days" for Nico, the exotic German chanteuse who had recently split from the Velvet Underground.

The unnaturally youthful California singer-songwriter performed the typically beautiful and heartbreakingly romantic tune as the fourth song in his set before a devoted following at the Rosemont Theatre on Sunday night, and it epitomized the unique performance.

Secure in his considerable talents, Browne has always been an extraordinarily generous artist, freely giving of himself to his peers. This was on full display Sunday as he started the evening by joining his two opening acts, Steve Earle and Keb' Mo', for a low-key acoustic hootenanny, effectively introducing the roots rocker and the modern bluesman to any of his fans who may have been unfamiliar with them.

Later, Browne joined Mo' on piano and backing vocals for part of the bluesman's set. And the evening came to a climactic conclusion with Mo', Earle and Dukes guitarist Eric "Roscoe" Ambel joining the star's seven-piece band to power through another tune he gave away, the Eagles' hit and unofficial California state anthem, "Take It Easy."

Ironically, though Browne introduced it as "a song that everybody knows," Earle and Mo' both flubbed the verses that Browne gave them to sing. But the song's co-author just stepped back, rolled his eyes and smiled broadly as if to say, "Why let ego stand in the way of a good time jamming with friends?"

Fans may have been disappointed that Browne played a mere 13 songs in his own set proper, only a few more than each of his openers offered. But he rewarded their loyalty by honoring some of their shouted requests, and by digging deep into his sizable catalog to offer some rarities (including "These Days" and 1986's fetching "In the Shape of a Heart") as well as the expected hits ("Doctor My Eyes," "Running on Empty").

Like the once-ubiquitous smiley-face icon and long lines at the gas stations, Browne could be dismissed by cynics as a dated symbol of the '70s. The playing of his slick but soulful band was a perfect example of that era's "California sound"; he's still wedded to the fashions and hairstyle of the time, and his non-compromising, media-phobic approach to the business of pop stardom seems like a noble anachronism in these days of the eager sellout.

But when he wraps those gorgeous vocals (undiminished by the passing of time) around a characteristically heartfelt and poignant lyric ("It was a ruby that she wore/ On a chain around her neck/In the shape of a heart/It was a time I won't forget/For the sorrow and regret/And the shape of a heart"), the effect, like that of any great song or poem, is utterly timeless and transcendent.

Browne's faith in him aside (and despite his amusing stage patter), Mo' is a much lesser talent as a songwriter, as he proved during a fairly generic set in the middle of the evening. But while Chicago favorite Earle was unusually restrained during his performance with the Dukes, riveting and politically charged tunes such as "John Walker's Blues" and the title track of his last album, "Jerusalem," are sure to be every bit as powerful 35 years from now as "These Days" or any of the songs performed by the night's generous headliner.