Jackson Browne is not Tom Petty. He made a note of that to his audience at the Chicago Theatre on Tuesday before playing another new song, one of many that dominated his setlist. “Petty plays like two” new songs when he tours, Browne noted.
That wasn’t the case over the 2-hour, 30-minute show that found the songwriter looking forward and not necessarily backward like many of his peers. Browne came of age at a very young age during the early 1970s singer-songwriter scene with songs of doomed romance and epic introspection. Some of those songs revived Tuesday were performed with the gravity of a much older man. “These Days,” a song Browne wrote as a teenager and was recorded by Nico in 1967, was in this incarnation, much more meditative. Guitarists Greg Leisz and Val McCallum exchanged phrases between verses describing eternal aching that now suited Browne’s huskier vocals.
Browne saved some of his best known hits like “Running on Empty,” “The Pretender” and “Take It Easy” for the end of the night, and even then they felt obligatory. The front end of the show was devoted to “Standing in the Breach” (Inside Recordings), his first album of new material in six years. Those songs, expansive and bluesy, tended to be broader in scope, less about personal issues than about social ones: “Which Side,” which he debuted at the 2012 Occupy protests, tended to sound like a list of grievances with references to fracking and corporate lobbyists.
Musically, the new songs remained gentle, with drummer Mauricio Lewak relying more often on brushes than sticks. “You Know the Night,” featuring new music set to little-known or used Woody Guthrie lyrics, was a gentle shuffle while “The Birds of St. Marks” emerged as in fully 12-string guitar glory in homage to The Byrds.
“We owe so much to the Chicago blues and what happened here to how a counterculture happened when people listened to Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Howlin’ Wolf,” he said.
Browne took requests, but they were few; instead, the show rarely colored outside the lines. His band, also featuring Jeff Young on keyboards and vocals and bassist Bob Glaub, made every tasteful accent glow, but there was restraint. “Doctor My Eyes” got the audience up on its feet, but otherwise this evening burned slowly and on point.