Jackie Greene finds life among the Dead
It isn't easy being a Chosen One. Rootsy singer-songwriter Jackie Greene formerly a big fish in the relatively small pond of Sacramento who now lives in San Francisco has had great things expected of him since he was a solo troubadour fresh out of high school in Placerville. Rolling Stone critics named Gone Wanderin', his first album for the indie Dig Music label, one of the best of 2002 and the follow-up, Sweet Somewhere Bound (Dig Music, 2004), was another critical favorite. The excitement led to Greene being signed by Verve/Forecast, and his first disc for that company, 2006's extraordinary American Myth, seemed to confirm this guy was going places. Produced by Los Lobos' Steve Berlin, the album was a diverse and confident showcase of Americana styles, from blues to driving rock to Dylanesque rambles. But a not-so-funny thing happened to Greene on the way to certain stardom: his label started to fall apart in the middle of promoting his album, tours were cancelled, and the blush of early success faded.
Yet Greene's upward trajectory continued. A spellbinding and charismatic performer, he kept playing wherever he could, with his band or acoustic with a partner. It wasn't long before he had a new label in place, this time with 429, a subsidiary of the Savoy jazz imprint. In the meantime, out of the blue, former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, who leads the popular Deadish jam band Phil Lesh and Friends, fell in love with American Myth and invited Greene to join the group as lead vocalist and co-lead guitarist alongside the great Larry Campbell. Though Greene hadn't listened to much Dead beyond the records his parents owned and frankly he preferred his folks' Ray Charles and Big Bill Broonzy discs he quite naturally fell into the mix. The songwriter was quickly accepted by Dead Heads for his passionate renditions of the band's tunes, as well as cover songs and a sprinkling of his originals.
"I love playing in Phil and Friends," he says as he sits in the control room of Mission Bells, the Bernal Heights recording studio he shares with Tim Bluhm of the Mother Hips. "Playing those Jerry [Garcia] songs, I kind of feel like I love a lot of them like they're my own songs."
In the midst of touring with Lesh last fall, Greene and Steve Berlin somehow managed to find time to record the superb, just-released Giving up the Ghost (429). Using both his regular touring band and the same group of hip Los Angeles session cats who sparked American Myth collectively they're known as Jackshit, with Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas as their best-known member Greene and Berlin painstakingly put together the album from sessions in Sacramento, Los Angeles, SF, Chicago, and Brooklyn. Greene rightly calls the recording "darker" than its predecessor. That said, it is still filled with sharp lyrics, bright melodies, memorable riffs and hooks, and typically soulful vocals. In keeping with Greene's and Berlin's affection for off-the-wall sonics, there are literally dozens of different guitar and keyboard textures, unusual treatments on vocals, and a zillion little touches that give the disc a wonderful variety and depth. It's easy to picture several songs being embraced by rock radio, but this music is still not exactly at the forefront of the current mainstream.
"Certainly I want to have some successful records who doesn't?" Greene confesses. "But I'm not willing to make anything other than what I want to make it sound like. If this is not considered commercially viable, then so be it."
Thurs/10, 8 p.m., $22.50
1805 Geary, SF