For those who have never been, Red Rocks Amphitheater is, well, quite possibly the best musical venue on the planet. But don’t take my word for it. Geddy Lee, bassist and lead singer for Rush, called it “…an amazing location. One of the most beautiful concert venues in America…I would hazard a guess that it’s one of the most beautiful anywhere.” Nestled between huge, rust-colored sandstone formations thrust skyward when the Rocky Mountains were formed, it offers an intimate (only 9,000 seats) concert experience for both performer and audience. I prefer to sit up from the stage a bit, where one is rewarded with views out across the prairie seemingly to the very edge of the world. Once darkness falls, the lights of Denver provide a glimmering backdrop and the familiar, amiable scent of burning hemp wafts lazily through the assemblage. I would call it awesome, if the word weren’t so horribly overused.
He was one of the lesser voices in my musical upbringing – not in quality, mind you, but most certainly quantity. While the radio stations couldn’t play enough of the Stones and Boston and Aerosmith in the seventies, Jackson Browne got only light rotation on the rock playlists. Perhaps it was because they didn’t know what to make of him, with his introspective lyrics and acoustic-heavy music. Sure, there were a handful of ‘old standbys’ that found their way to the turntable – The Pretender, Running On Empty, Doctor My Eyes – but the majority of his stuff was generally ignored by commercial radio. The stuff that I found most appealing – For a Dancer, Before the Deluge, The Barricades of Heaven, These Days.
There’s a verse from Fountain of Sorrow that describes how he comes across a forgotten photograph of a former lover, a picture he had taken long ago. “And at the moment that my camera happened to find you, there was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes…” To me, the same could be said about Jackson Browne’s singing style – there seems always to be just a trace of sorrow in his voice. Considering some of the events in his private life, it’s no wonder. And it was that trace of sorrow that kept me listening, made me feel like we shared some painful secret, made me feel like I knew him maybe a little.
Fortunately, he holds the same opinion of Red Rocks as Geddy, and plays there often. And this year, despite my lingering employment woes – or perhaps because of them – I ponied up for tickets.
On stage, there is no swagger in his demeanor, no bravado or forced showmanship – just a comfortable self-assurance. I guess more than four decades of performing will bring that. His 67-year old vocal chords show their age on occasion, especially on the high notes, but no one in the audience seems to mind. Hell, we’re all pretty long in the tooth ourselves. Well, most of us, anyway. My son, all of 23, sits beside me, taking everything in with a contented smile. This was actually his idea. While I would like to take credit for his diverse musical tastes, in truth he seemed to stumble upon the classic rock genre entirely on his own. I can only cop to aiding and abetting after the fact. You see, we kind of have a deal. Being a former ‘radio talent,’ I regale him with stories of the now-decrepit rock stars he adds to his playlist, and he sees to it that I listen to at least some artists from this century. When he asked a few months ago if I would be interested in catching Jackson Browne at Red Rocks, there was no hesitation.
The songs roll on, one after another, the opening chords met with sporadic applause or howls of delight as people recognize their favorites. As the night deepens, a warm wind swirls amongst the faithful, most of whom sing along softly to the personal ballads chronicling a loss of love or innocence, and take to their feet for the more raucous stuff. During the encore, both performer and audience proclaim their love for one another, the former with humble words, the latter with heartfelt cheers. Just then, nature provides its own curtain call in the form of a giant orange half-moon rising from the prairie like an ember from a dying campfire, its color a reflection of the stone monoliths that flank us on either side.
People will tell you “nothing is perfect,” but those few hours in the hills above Denver were as close as anything can be.