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Jackson Browne, performing in Berkeley, running on anything but empty

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Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne performed at Berkeley's Greek Theatre on Friday.

BERKELEY — Jackson Browne has aged well. Other than his hair — quite gray now and no longer with the part down the middle — and a crow’s foot or two around his eyes, he seems to have aged little since his last appearance in Berkeley six years ago. If anything, at age 73 his voice is even stronger, while his endurance for nearly three-hour performances hasn’t seemed to flag at all.

Temperate weather at the Greek Theatre last Friday evening graced the nearly sold-out crowd, most of whom appeared to be ardent and knowledgeable Browne fans. They were treated to a career-spanning concert, 24 songs drawing heavily from both his remarkable five-album, star-making run from 1972 to 1977 and from his most recent album, 2021’s "Downhill from Everywhere."

With one principal change, Browne brought his long-standing core band to the Greek. Jeff Young, his regular organist and harmony singer, was absent and Jason Crosby, the newest member, took care of keyboards and multiple stringed instruments. The rest of the veteran crew was there: Val McCallum and Greg Leisz on guitars, Bob Glaub playing bass, Mauricio “Fritz” Lewak on drums, and backup vocalists Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart.

Val McCallum is not a household name but he should be. At this concert he received more than a dozen ovations for his guitar solos, and he tastefully decorated the vocals and his bandmates’ moments with fills that enhanced but never intruded. And he can really rock. His extended breaks on "Redneck Friend" and "Doctor My Eyes" are only two examples of his solos lifting the crowd to its feet.

Greg Leisz is the prototypical sought-after sideman. His résumé is long and illustrious, having played and recorded with a who’s who of musical stars. He is a master of the six-string guitar, electric or acoustic, and of both lap steel and pedal steel guitars.

Aside from everything else he does with this band, Leisz has inherited all the signature David Lindley slide work that was essential to the early Browne catalog. On Friday, Leisz’s standout contributions included "The Barricades of Heaven," "That Girl Could Sing," "Take It Easy" and a prolonged improvisational lap steel outro on "Stay" to end the concert.

Jason Crosby — no, he’s not related to David Crosby — is a talented multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter playing mostly keyboards, violin and viola with Browne. At the Greek, his string playing particularly enhanced "Linda Paloma," "For a Dancer" and "Our Lady of the Well." In a surprising moment during "Fountain of Sorrow," Browne left the piano bench with Crosby sliding in to replace him for a gorgeous piano break.

Going all the way back to Rosemary Butler wailing on "Stay," Browne has regularly incorporated wonderful female voices on his recordings and performances. Mills and Stewart were constants throughout the evening. Aside from traditional backup vocals, they joined Browne side-by-side singing mostly in Spanish on "The Dreamer" and belting on "Until Justice is Real." With her buttery alto voice, Stewart performed a beautiful solo outro on "The Long Way Around," Browne’s interesting echo of "These Days."

According to Browne, bassist Glaub is his longest-running bandmate. Like so many who play that instrument, he’s the quiet person in the back holding the band rhythmically together. In a lovely moment on Friday, as the solos were going around on "Our Lady of the Well," everyone stopped while Glaub played a beautiful melodic lead break for one cycle of the song. He earned a well-deserved ovation.

Lewak, dead center on the stage, is a very active musical drummer driving the rhythm section along with Glaub. As much as any other element, rock is about the backbeat on the snare drum and Lewak’s is like a cannon shot. Like the late Charlie Watts, Lewak’s right hand comes off the hi-hat cymbal when the left hits the snare, leaving the backbeat sharp and pure.

And Lewak gets the most electric moment in any Jackson Browne show, a pause and then the explosive drum re-entry leading to the finish of "Running on Empty." In those moments Lewak and his kit are awash in blinding white light.

Finally there’s Browne himself. As mentioned, his voice has never been stronger, his trademark vocal phrasing seemingly effortless, the elegantly crafted songs easily passing the test of time. A notorious perfectionist, he somehow still comes off as the most relaxed guy on the stage.

His concert, long and varied, is generous to the audience, and his warm connection to his bandmates is obvious, particularly for those sitting close to the musicians. This is a concert that would have benefited from video. Many of the band’s interactions are brief and microscopic — knowing smiles, laughter, raised eyebrows, perhaps inside jokes. These people really like one another.

Browne’s popularity, first fueled by hits like "Doctor My Eyes" and "Rock Me on the Water" and his boyish good looks, has exponentially grown over the decades. Ultimately it’s been the lyrics, his words and their meaning, that have captured and held a huge adult audience — explorations of love and loss, of death, of war, of the environment, of justice, all wrapped in great melodies and superb musicianship. He’s been doing it for a half century and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down. He’s running on anything but empty.

David Kerns is a Napa-based novelist and journalist.

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