There was a wonderful, unscripted point when Jackson Browne flubbed a change in “Just Say Yeah” during his Montreal International Jazz Festival concert at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier of Place des Arts Saturday night. “When I mess up this bad, everybody gets a free solo,” he said. Apparently surprising even his band members, he kicked the song back into gear after its natural end and prodded each one to come up with a spotlight moment.
Mostly, however, the man who helped write the rule book for post-Dylan singer-songwriters let the other moments of warmth and vulnerability come from his impressive catalog. And although the set list was heavy on songs from his most recent disc, Time the Conqueror — half of its 10 songs were played — the recent material takes its place quite comfortably with the classics. “Live Nude Cabaret,” for example, sounds like a song waiting to be covered by Leonard Cohen, an idea Browne acknowledged by name-checking hometown boy Cohen in his introduction.
Browne’s two-hour performance also included evergreens like “For a Dancer,” “The Pretender,” “Running on Empty,” “Doctor My Eyes” and the stirring “I Am a Patriot” (strangely mixed into a medley with the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing”). Much credit for the show’s even-handed pacing and meaty sound goes to his superb band, the same group that played on Time the Conqueror. Guitarist Mark Goldenberg and keyboard player Jeff Young were clearly the MVPs, sprucing up many songs with a punchy, Highway 61 folk-rock jangle. Perhaps Browne’s most interesting choice was to use his backup vocalists Alethea Mills and Chavonne Morris in a way that made them vocal partners rather than wallpaper or camouflage.
Introducing “Off of Wonderland,” his warmly mournful look back at the hippie era and its mythology, Browne said the song was about a “tremendous sense of the possible.” And with almost 40 years of performing under his belt, his best work has yet to stop leading us into that very sense.