It’s unlikely that J.D. Souther’s return to recording after a 24-year absence is going to change anyone’s impression of the soft-rock pioneer, but it may well lead to a reassessment of the second wave of Southern California rock in the 1970s. Appearing by his lonesome Tuesday at Largo, Souther weaved circuitous and comical stories between the songs that appear on his new “If the World Was You,” hits he wrote with the Eagles and the songs of his 1970s heyday, when he seemed more comfortable with his name in the liner notes than splashed across an album cover.
An uncommon synchronicity occurred once Souther’s songs were stripped of production, background vocals and a rhythm section. As a writer, he has positioned himself into a state of timelessness; his characters could be in their 20s or nearing retirement — the guy waiting for a barmaid to get off work, in a new song, is not all that different from the new kid in town the Eagles sang about three decades ago. Melodically, too, his core remains unchanged by new styles, technology or even the tendency, as an artist ages, to simplify. The man is a detail-oriented storyteller, his music crafted as well as any pop songbook of the past 50 years.
The curious thing is that he managed to stir these impressions by delivering a show that was unfocused, meandering and too long. He plays three custom-made guitars designed to generate a full-bodied ringing sound when lightly touched, and for every tune in which they worked perfectly, there was another that magnified the clumsiness of some of his guitar playing. (He’s a far superior pianist, and his background as a jazz drummer certainly helps in his sense of timekeeping, which clearly prevents some songs from fizzling out).
Souther’s onstage approach is impromptu living room gathering, a scenario that would work if he had another voice onstage to create a dialogue. After he passed the two-hour mark — regardless of the entertainment values in his stories about other songwriters and musicians plus his travels to places such as Cuba — it got to be too much of the same thing.
But there’s no denying the visceral strength of the new album’s “I’ll Be Here at Closing Time,” “Journey Down the Nile” and “In My Arms Tonight.” Even without the jazz and Latin elements that give the album an engaging lilt, the tunes stood strong when partnered with the mid- to late-’70s classics “Black Rose,” “Simple Man, Simple Dream” and “White Rhythm & Blues,” numbers that were unfortunately overshadowed upon their release by innocuous soft rock that was used as counterprogramming to disco.
He performed “How Long,” the 36-year-old tune inspired by a Vietnam veteran’s story that served as the first single on the Eagles’ 2007 comeback album “Long Road Out of Eden” and won the band and Souther a Grammy for country song. Its inclusion in the set was yet another reminder of the key role he played in shaping the story-songs of the Eagles — he’s part of the writing team on every Eagles album except the first one and “One of These Nights” — and how that unique vision of the American West owes a considerable debt to Souther.
By stepping away from music after 1984’s “Home by Dawn,” Souther managed to avoid the experiments and missteps of his peers who attempted to stay sonically relevant in the MTV era. Rather than reinvent, Souther is in a position to reinvigorate his catalog by hiring a band and taking it on the road to celebrate the new and the old. Treat as it was to hear Souther’s songs in their blueprint form, his return to music will feel full-fledged when the performance reflects the multitude of his talents.