Thursday, March 27, 2008
Twenty-eight year-old singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jackie Greene can count one of rock’s most important figures as a fan of his music. A 2006 interview in the Nashville Scene with Phil Lesh finds the Grateful Dead’s bassist pumped up about seeing Greene at the annual music festival Bonnaroo. “I just heard Jackie Greene’s album, and it’s one of the best produced and mixed albums I’ve ever heard,” Lesh said of 2006’s American Myth. “The guitar playing on it is impeccable.”
Recently, Lesh’s admiration for Greene, who was born in Salinas, transcended niceties uttered in print: The music legend hired the young musician to be a part of his group, Phil Lesh and Friends. Now, in addition to performing Deadhead favorites like “Sugar Magnolia” and “Dark Star,” Phil Lesh and Friends have started to do Greene originals “Gone Wanderin,’ ” “When You’re Walkin’ Away” and “Seven Jealous Sisters” during their performances.
But Lesh is not the only well-respected rock musician impressed with the young songwriter. Los Lobos saxophone and keyboard player Steve Berlin decided to produce American Myth after he saw Greene open for his band at the Fillmore.
The impressive list of guest musicians on Greene’s upcoming release Giving Up the Ghost, which comes out this Tuesday, further testifies to the young songwriter’s appeal among rock’s established acts. Lesh and Berlin play on the CD along with Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, Tower of Power’s Mic Gillette, Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell and The Mother Hips’ Tim Bluhm.
Giving Up the Ghost begins with the CD’s best track titled “Shaken.” With lyrics about California, the track’s wide-open, shimmering sound seems to echo the song’s expansive subject matter. His “Prayer for Spanish Harlem” is a ballad sung in a low lover’s voice, and “Don’t Let the Devil Take Your Mind” is a rock and soul number with horns boosting the chorus. An album highlight is the brisk lover’s kiss-off titled “Follow You,” which features little lightning bolts of electric guitar and storms of fierce harmonica.
One song, “Uphill Mountain,” reveals Greene’s affinity for old blues artists with references to Big Joe Turner and Elmore James. In an e-mail interview with Greene, he describes why he made allusions to a couple of acts that were popular in the ’50s. “Well, I have a great respect for old American music,” he says. “It’s the stuff I listen to a lot and the stuff I love. I figure that people should know them by name. Hopefully, some young listeners will go look up who they were.”
That love of old-timey music probably helps bond Greene with rock’s established elders like Lesh. In a 2007 interview with Jambands.com, Greene describes himself as “the weird guy in high school always carrying around a Muddy Waters album.” Later in the piece, the singer/songwriter reveals discovering that he and Lesh were influenced by similar strains of music. “What I didn’t know was that Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead were very familiar with the blues and with all forms of American music,” Greene says. “So Phil and I knew a lot of the same songs, even if the versions were sometimes a little different.”
Like the Grateful Dead, Greene puts his own stamp on old American music forms. The songs on Giving Up the Ghost are a blend of rock, blues and folk with some of the rougher edges smoothed off.
Greene embarked on a music career after graduating from high school. Discovered at a Sacramento open mic night, Greene was signed to DIG Music and issued his first album, Gone Wanderin’, in 2002. Released when Greene was just 21, Gone Wanderin’ took home a California Music Award for Best Blues/Roots Album and established the songwriter as a promising new force in Americana music.
The album spawned the audience favorite “Mexican Girl,” a catchy rock song with nice electric guitar outbursts and an impressive south-of-the-border acoustic guitar solo.
Since that auspicious debut, Greene has put out three other CDs and become a popular touring act. In a short time, he also has played a lot of America’s most popular music festivals, from our own long-running Monterey Jazz Festival to the sprawling South by Southwest Festival in Austin to the premiere folk music gathering, the Newport Folk Festival.
Along with his accelerating solo career and his position in Phil Lesh and Friends, Greene decided to unite with Bluhm in 2006 for a project called the Skinny Singers. The duo released a CD titled Strike Again! in 2007. It includes the soulful rock of “Going Home Again” and the blues goof “Baby’s Got a Mustache.”
Even though Greene’s plate is obviously full, he seems to be relishing all the work. “My life is music, music, music,” he says. “I couldn’t be happier.”
JACKIE GREENE plays 8pm Friday, March 28, at the Sunset Center, located on San Carlos between Eighth and Ninth, Carmel. $32. 620-2048.