Jackson Browne reached the peak of his artistic powers on Aug. 27, 1977, in Columbia, Maryland. The previous fall he had released his last great studio album,
, and now he was bringing the songs from his first four albums and most of the musicians who had played on them to the Merriweather Post Pavilion. Browne was 30 years old, impossibly handsome, and singing his glorious pop hooks with an irresistible confidence. Nearly as lyrical were the fiddle fills and slide-guitar solos by Browne's longtime sidekick David Lindley. I know; I was there. Browne introduced a batch of unrecorded new songs, and the rolling tape machines captured his exhilarating versions of "Running on Empty" and "The Load-Out/Stay" that night. Those versions became the opening and closing tracks of that December's live album,
Running on Empty
, the best-selling record he would ever release. For one summer evening in Howard County, Browne was better than he'd ever been—and better than he'd ever be again. He's been trying to reclimb that peak ever since. Thirty-three years later (minus three days) Browne returned to Maryland, to the Pier Six Concert Pavilion this time, with Lindley in tow again. The two old friends opened the show alone, sitting side-by-side in straight-back wooden chairs, and sharing songs by Browne, Warren Zevon, and Bruce Springsteen on acoustic guitars. The unplugged format echoed Browne's latest album,
Love Is Strange
, a double-disc live set with Lindley and various Spanish musicians. Lindley remained onstage to play two songs by himself, and you've never appreciated the possibilities of Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road" until you've heard it played on the oud. After a short intermission, Browne—and eventually Lindley—returned with a rock'n'roll band to play songs from all phases of Browne's career. Inevitably the biggest cheers greeted the oldest songs: "Doctor My Eyes," "Rock Me on the Water," "Fountain of Sorrow," and "The Pretender," all songs he had sung on Aug. 27, 1977. It's easy to chalk this up to nostalgia on the part of the baby-boomer audience, and that was clearly a factor. But those songs were also markedly better than anything Browne has written since, for they benefited from Browne's greatest gift: the ability to pen a melody that captures that reluctant, ineluctable slide from rationality into the tide pools of emotion. Though Browne has penned a handful of strong lyrics, that was never his true strength. What made him special were those chorus melodies, and that talent can depart as mysteriously as it arrives. Browne never stopped writing—and he made a brave move into political subject matter—but his hooks were never again as sharp as they'd been in the mid-'70s and his lyrics were too ordinary to compensate. So he found himself outdoors in Maryland once more on an August night, trying to mix his later songs ("Giving That Heaven Away," "In the Shape of a Heart," "My Problem Is You," and "The Naked Ride Home") in with his early ones, as if they were equally valid. But there was no ignoring the difference. Browne was still impossibly handsome and still possessed a honeyed tenor, but he was trying to recapture a past that was beyond retrieval.