Jackson Browne's current U.S. tour is billed as a solo performance, with the veteran singer-songwriter onstage by himself with piano and guitar. But nobody said anything about it being just one guitar—at the Hippodrome on Saturday night, Browne had a grand piano and a rack of over 20 guitars stretching nearly the whole length of the stage. A few songs into his set, he did what quickly became his customary thoughtful stroll across the stage, perusing the guitars and finally picking up one that caught his fancy. He explained that it had originally been bought with the intention of giving it to Tom Petty—but it's hard to find guitars that are good enough to give as gifts, but not so good he’s tempted to keep them for himself.
Although his wide selection of instruments seemed like a rock-star indulgence, over the course of the night it proved to be an integral part of the show. For one song, he played a steel guitar that had been made for him by a guy in Denver, with a car hubcap in the middle of the body of the guitar, and the slide guitar had a sound and personality all its own. When he switched to an electric guitar, he played a taut and crisp rendition of 'In The Shape Of A Heart,' a devastating 1986 song inspired by the suicide of Browne's first wife a decade earlier.
At 65, Browne looks pretty much the same as he did when he became a major star of the west coast singer-songwriter scene in the '70s, give or take the gray hair. His voice still sails with the same clear, serene beauty it's always had, although you could often hear it croak slightly as he began a line or let it wind down. His voice and melodic sense have a way of smoothing out even his most verbose lyrics, turning them into perfect little melancholy pop hooks with incredible efficiency.
At one point, the singer decided to pay tribute to his late friend and contemporary Warren Zevon, who was known for more darkly humorous material than Browne. And while the three Zevon songs he played, including the junkie lament 'Carmelita' and the morbid 'Life'll Kill Ya,' stood out a bit from Browne's more sentimental hits, the entire show was marked by his own sense of humor. A few minutes earlier, he even played one of his more dryly satirical originals, the ode to masturbation 'Rosie.'
Browne previewed tracks from his next album, "Standing In The Breach," which is due out in October. 'Here' was a lovely ballad originally written for the 2009 film "Shrink," while 'Leaving Winslow' was a playful tip of the hat to the Arizona town he made famous in his lyric for the Eagles hit 'Take It Easy.' That song, and uptempo hits such as 'Doctor My Eyes,' comprised the climactic final section of the concet, with the latter featuring a brief guitar solo by one of Browne's crew members while he sang at the piano. Despite being an ostensibly mild-mannered balladeer, Browne has always been something of a road warrior, with live hits like 'Running On Empty,' originally recorded in 1977 just down the highway at Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Browne probably puts on just as great a show with a big backing band, but there was a particular charm to the way he worked the crowd at the Hippodrome while taking his sweet time choosing his next guitar or his next song. The rowdy Baltimore audience sometimes caught him off guard with shouted requests and playful comments, but by the end of the night he seemed to appreciate the lively atmosphere. "Playing here isn't that different from playing in my house," he said at one point. "Except at home I'd be able to take a break and make myself a sandwich."