Gather round everyone and let me tell you about a part of the 1970s. It’s called the soft rock scene. Purveyors of this watered down version of what was once something hard and dangerous were the likes of Linda Ronstandt, Boz Scaggs, The Steve Miller Band, and many more too countless to bother remembering . Unless of course you program adult easy listening stations these days.
But even from sludge some cream will rise, and in the pocket of Southern California that’s was home to most of this scene the best and realest of the lot was Jackson Browne. Jackson is still with us, and interestingly enough his music has gotten harder and stronger as he’s aged. He’s like those early Southern California wines that showed promise years ago, and are now turning into classics.
Even in his earlier green days Jackson was obviously head and shoulder above the rest, Late For The Sky and The Pretender are still albums which have the power to resonate emotionally after all these years. Exemplifiers of the best aspects of the inward looking seventies agenda (remember this was known as the ME decade) his music always contained more sincerity and universality than the rest combined.
Even on his most personal and inward looking moments, like the song “The Pretender”, he was able to turn his own angst into a universal truth that an audience could empathies with. Almost alone of all the music emanating from California during this period he actually realized a world existed beyond their sunny boarders and “fast lane” lifestyle.
Who better than him therefore to try and offer a depiction of a band’s experiences on tour to an audience? His 1977 album Running On Empty was the first real attempt by anyone to record the weird half life existence of a band living in motel rooms, buses, and planes. (Cameron Crowe writes in liner notes that he freely lifted imagery from stills of this tour for the staging of his movie Almost Famous)
In a series of songs written, and recorded while touring, Jackson takes the listener by the arm and guides us Virgil like through the murky depths and then back to the glory of touring. From his opening personal statement about his life on the road, “Running on Empty” to the grand finale of “The Load Out/Stay” medley we see the highs and the lows, the camaraderie, and the sheer tedium of doing the same thing night in night out for months.
In a special two disc CD/DVD package released on November 15th the Running On Empty experience has been re mastered for a whole new generation of fans. With Jackson Browne overseeing as Producer the music has been re formatted into 5.1-surround sound for the DVD and two previously unreleased cuts have been added.
Unfortunately the Video aspect of DVD is not really a part of the disc. The only visuals are provided during the music are static shots culled from the tour’s official photographer’s collection. The couple attempts at using video are simply montages of photos that were shot in sequence and filmed to run together to present Claymation type action shots.
So it comes back to judging this collection on the merits of the songs and how well they have stood the test of time. Will they appeal to anyone aside from people like me who actually owned Running On Empty on vinyl and liked it then? There’s also the question of whether there is any point in picking it up if you already own a version of it on CD.
I think Almost Famous proved that people have a fascination with all things “backstage” when it comes to rock and roll. Running On Empty does a far superior job than the movie in communicating an unsentimental version of touring. Strictly seen through the eyes of the band, and not Cameron Crow’s rose tinted glasses, the songs are a lot more emotionally naked than anything that ever happened on screen.
There’s darkness to the humour of “Cocaine” that slips through the cracks of the giggles shown in the lines about band members desperate searching’s for their drug of choice at 4:00am, that wouldn’t be as funny as diving into a swimming pool on screen. “Rosie” reveals a truth about sex on the road that just wouldn’t appeal to mass audiences in the same way as half naked groupies dancing around a motel room.
I haven’t really listened to any of these songs in the close to thirty years since it was released. I would occasionally hear “Running On Empty” on the radio but that’s about it. You don’t usually come across anything by Jackson Browne casually popping up on the radio. So when I sat down to listen to it again it was like hearing most of the songs for the first time.
They are actually better then I had remembered. Maybe because I’m older now and more aware, but I heard things now that I had missed upon first listening. The depth and emotional range of the more serious songs and the darkness of the lighter songs seemed more obvious. With the exception of the “The Load Out”/”Stay” medley, which is mainly throw away fun, the rest of the CD is an unsentimental depiction of a band going down the road.
Obviously the DVD is geared for people who are using their computer as an integral part of their home entertainment system. For those people obviously it’s a step up in sound quality and entertainment value. Even when I ran it through my DVD player and the cheap surround system attached to my television I could notice a sizeable difference.
Running On Empty is a great collection of music that has more than stood the test of time. As a record of a band’s life on the road it is far superior to Almost Famous’ sentimental nostalgia and it is defiantly a record that I think people should have in their collections. The DVD is a disappointment, especially if you are hoping for concert footage of the songs but the remixes will please the audiophiles with the latest equipment and the photos are nice.
But if all you’re interested in is the music, go and find a re mastered CD, sit back and jump on board with the band as they tool on down the road.
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