According to Greek mythology, a “rhapsode” is an oral epic poet who regales audiences with song. Their performances were interspersed with tales and jokes. The rhapsode, channeling cosmic muses to sing through them and enlighten audiences, is synonymous with wisdom.
Fast forward several thousand years. And consider a solo Jackson Browne show. This must be nearly identical to what tunic-clad Greeks witnessed at religious festivals and funeral games. Browne, who performed this summer at Wallingford’s famed Oakdale Theatre, put on the type of show that resulted in 2005’s and 2008’s wonderful Solo Acoustic records. Armed with a piano and enough guitars to make any gearhead envious, Browne took requests for more than two hours from a charmed audience who shouted out crowd pleasers like “Doctor My Eyes” as well as newer cuts like “Naked Ride Home.”
Browne’s voice is not perfect. It lacks the mellifluousness of James Taylor’s and the range of Paul Simon’s. But it’s a voice that, like its owner, has aged well. In fact, it’s a relief to hear time-weathered chops deliver lines like “Now if I seem to be afraid / To live the life I have made in song / It’s just that I’ve been losing so long,” taken from “These Days,” reportedly written when the artist was sixteen. Browne, who has been likened to a wunderkind, writing songs that belied his age, has earned the right to sing them today. There is thus a duality in listening to Browne. The listener never winces when they hear such lines; they simply marvel that a young man authored them.
Known as much for his in-between-songs banter as he is for the songs, Browne was loose and self-effacing during his performance. Laughing off false starts and guitar flubs, he comes across as an artist who demands a connection with his audience. Even with a new album out this fall—Standing in the Breach, his fourteenth—Browne opted to fulfill requests rather than plunge into new musical terrain. And why not? His body of work contains enough top-tier songs to give Bob Dylan a complex.
On the old Dick Cavett show, circa 1970, Paul Simon was asked about the creation of music. Cavett, clearly in awe of the creative process, remarked to Simon that there was a moment in time when the music did not exist, and then another when it did. What, Cavett wished to know, led to this discovery. Simon, picking up his guitar, proceeded to explain. There’s influence. And inspiration. And infatuation. And imagination.
Cobbling together Browne’s in-between-songs banter serves as an answer to Cavett’s question. And it’s more or less the same as Simon’s. But it’s Browne’s personal story. And it’s perhaps a bit of ours as well. And like the story of the rhapsode, it’s filled with hope and despair, longing and resignation, the past, the future, the uncertainty of what it means to be alive. We soon realize that banter, in all its earnestness, might be just as integral as the music itself.
Image Credits: Photo courtesy of James Bozzi, Live Nation