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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Jackson Has His Moments : Half the Irvine Meadows’ set was from Browne’s glory days of writing, emotionally hefty but a bit predictable.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn’t the kind of moment you expect from Jackson Browne. There was the perennially empathetic singer-songwriter Saturday at Irvine Meadows, in the middle of “Late for the Sky,” his melancholy 1974 ballad about the painful moment when two people recognize that their love has died. Right after singing the line “Now for me some words come easy . . .” he abruptly stopped while the band played on behind him.

Had a painful memory suddenly caught him unaware? Or after two decades of playing the title track from what many consider to be his finest album, did he simply forget the words?

Browne hastily cleared his throat, then cleared up the mystery: “I swallowed a bug.”

That he actually downed the critter was the real shocker. Given how acutely reverent Browne’s songs are toward the lives and feelings of each and every life on the planet, you’d have expected him to dial 911 and at least attempt a rescue.

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Missing only a couple of beats, he was back into the lyric and finished the song in typically tasteful fashion. An appreciative cheer erupted from the fans, who clearly enjoyed the unscripted moment.

Browne ought to attempt the unexpected a little more often in his music. After more than two decades of performing, he’s battling the bane of every successful artist: predictability.

Thematically and musically, Browne’s songs in recent years have contained few surprises. That may explain why half the 20 songs in the set came from his four 1970s albums. Those songs, and a select few of his latter-day material, gave the show more than enough emotional heft.

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Still, it was hard at times hearing a songwriter of Browne’s stature struggle at what once seemed to come so easily.

“Sky Blue and Black,” one of the five songs he pulled from his current “I’m Alive” album, is lyrically largely a replay of “Late for the Sky”; the chord progression in the turn from the verse to the chorus is the same one he used in “For Everyman,” another song he wrote more than 20 years ago.

After a while it begins to sniff of the cut-and-paste school of songwriting.

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That doesn’t mean there aren’t rewarding moments in his recent material, but they are just that: moments. Where his inspiration once stretched for full songs and even into a couple of full albums, now he strikes gold on a verse here, a melody fragment there.

In “My Problem Is You,” another new one, it’s necessary to wade through such lyrical chaff as “Our love is a fire / Our love is a wave moving deep in an ocean of need and desire” to get the wheat of a line as thought-provoking as “For some kinds of pleasure there are no defenses.”

His eight-piece band played everything with enormous skill, though not always with ideal musical balance. Drums and bass overpowered Browne’s voice periodically in the early going, and, during “Too Many Angels,” a chorus of voices meant to work in counterpoint to Browne’s was grossly overamplified.

Browne has held on to a sizable portion of the following he built in the ‘70s with a string of hit albums and singles. But because his records no longer reach the upper regions of the charts, he’s not keeping his fan pool constantly refilled.

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Thus the 15,000-capacity amphitheater was less than two-thirds full, even in a county that Browne, a 1966 graduate of Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, described as “one of the places I call home.”

For the answer to his artistic quandary, Browne need look no farther than his opening act. John Hiatt’s one-hour set was a singer-songwriter’s lesson in how to remain fresh when you are two decades beyond singing about the youthful quest for perfect love and for justice in an unjust world.

As Hiatt sang in “Straight Outta Time,” from his current “Perfectly Good Guitar” album: “I’m never gonna figure out the way that I feel.”

That realization alone leaves him with plenty to write about, from impatient youths who don’t value the beauty that is at their fingertips (“It breaks my heart to see those stars / Smashing a perfectly good guitar”) to adults who struggle to maintain stable relationships without succumbing to the blahs (“Cross My Fingers”).

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Hiatt, like Browne, has been recording since the ‘70s, but in contrast, his recent work is so consistently rich that he easily filled the hour without dipping into his catalogue farther back than 1987.

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Since he and his three-man Guilty Dogs band played the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano last September, the group has grown considerably tighter.

They faltered only in the closing rendition of “Tennessee Plates,” which raced at nearly punk-thrash tempo until the song was rhythmically straitjacketed.

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Otherwise, they locked into everything from the Gibraltar-esque R&B; groove of “Thing Called Love” to the hard-rock bashing of “Paper Thin” with single-minded purposefulness, not to mention the feeling that they were truly having fun.


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