Jackie Greene
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Jackie Greene

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While it's undeniable that the record business can be cruel and cold, and it spits out some of its best while lesser talents rise to the top, there are certain artists who just seem destined to make it, who have that elusive, can't-miss X factor. Like Jackie Greene, whose latest release, Giving Up the Ghost, has critics and fans alike (again) predicting stardom for the talented Northern California native.
At 27, Greene's no longer the wunderkind singer/songwriter who, following a youth spent mostly in the Sierra Gold Rush town of Placerville, moved to Sacramento after high school and immediately took the area by storm. Here was an “old soul,” wise beyond his years, who drew from blues, folk, old-time country, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, The Band and many other influences that he seamlessly integrated into a distinctive, personal style. The musical equivalent of a “five tools” baseball player, he was a strong and confident singer adept at myriad styles; a soulful multi-instrumentalist comfortable playing almost any stringed instrument, keyboards, harmonica, even drums; a magnetic performer either solo or with a band; an outstanding songwriter who easily blended a personal/confessional approach with broader American roots music archetypes; and a knowledgeable home recordist with respectable engineering chops.
He made his first album, Rusty Nails, when he was just 20. Shortly after that, he was “discovered” in Sacramento by manager Marty DeAnda, who signed Greene to his indie label, Dig Music. The 2002 disc Gone Wanderin' was picked as a top album by Rolling Stone critics and won a California Music Award for Best Blues/Roots album. On that album and Sweet Somewhere Bound, Greene played nearly all of the instruments himself. Meanwhile, as a performer he continued to hone his craft, and increasingly landed prestigious opening slots on shows by established acts. Indeed, the first time I even heard his name was when he opened a 2005 concert by Los Lobos at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Armed with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica, he put on one of the most mesmerizing “warm-up” sets I'd ever seen. I wasn't alone in that opinion: Los Lobos keyboardist, reeds player and producer Steve Berlin also saw Greene for the first time that night, and was so taken by his set that he later struck up a friendship with him, which led to Berlin producing Greene's masterful 2006 opus, American Myth, his first effort for the bigger Verve/Forecast label, and my favorite album from that year.

Photo: Jay Blakesberg
That album marked a change in recording direction. While Greene still maintained a very strong instrumental presence on the disc, Berlin surrounded him with a crack band of Los Angeles players who are known collectively as Jackshit — guitarist Val McCallum, bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello fame) — and such notable colorists as steel guitar ace Greg Leisz, Los Lobos percussionist Cougar Estrada and Berlin himself.
Berlin reflects, “We wanted it to sound like a band that had been together for years. The paradigm in my mind was The Faces before Rod turned into ‘Rod Stewart’ — when they had a great time and you could hear on every track that they were having a good time. So we tried to build that camaraderie in the process. Then we found this nice, funky studio called Sage & Sound in Hollywood, which is like a museum of great 1972 recording gear. There's nothing that tells you anything else. It's even got the shag carpeting!” Mark Johnson engineered that fine disc.
Despite across-the-board critical accolades for American Myth, sales were only so-so, in part because the Verve team that had been behind Greene started to unravel shortly after the album's release, so he never received the sort of promotional follow-through that could have taken the album to the next level. Meanwhile, another label came a-courtin'. While he was still signed to Verve, 429 Records — a division of another label, Savoy — gave Greene some money to go into a studio with his band and producer Berlin and cut a song for their exceptional tribute to The Band, Endless Highway. “And I said, ‘If we're getting together, why do one song when we could do few,’” Berlin recalls. “‘There's enough money there so let's see what we can do.’ So in July 2006, we went into The Hangar [Studios] in Sacramento and cut The Band song ‘Lookout Cleveland’ and then three of Jackie's tunes: ‘Prayer for Spanish Harlem,’ ‘When You Return’ and ‘Uphill Mountain.’ Those songs became the start of the new album.”
Berlin says The Hangar has “a funky, old, wonderful vibe, and lots of cool vintage gear. It's run by the guy who publishes Tape Op magazine [John Bacciagaluppi] and it's a true boutique studio filled with better-mouse-trap preamps and great, weird audio stuff and weird old instruments.”
“The studio is hard to describe,” agrees Ralph Stover, who engineered the tracks at The Hangar. “The main room is like this huge gymnasium room with sk - MixOnline.com - 4/08


Jackie Greene is loving life these days. The 27-year-old rock musician moved to San Francisco from Sacramento a little more than a year ago. He spent most of his first year sleeping in an equipment storage room at the Mission Street recording studio he owns with Tim Bluhm of the Mother Hips, but now, thanks to his new job, he is renting a small apartment out by the zoo.
He adores San Francisco and tools around town in a secondhand '94 Jetta. He doesn't have a girlfriend ("I have several," he says). He just released his fourth album, a very fine record called "Giving Up the Ghost," that may make him the star many have predicted he would be since he first showed up on the scene at age 21 with his debut album, "Gone Wanderin'."
"I'm glad to finally have another record out," he says. "It's been a long time. It's been two years."
He eats lunch at the Thai restaurant across the street from the studio. The waitress hasn't seen him much since he moved out of the neighborhood, but she still remembers what he likes to eat. Later, as his partner, Bluhm, is busy producing a solo album by ALO drummer Dave Brogan in their studio, Mission Bells, above a Mexican restaurant, Greene sits out on the sunny porch in back by his old digs and puffs on American Spirits. He is wearing a black leather jacket, a couple of silver bracelets and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, allowing a tattoo to peek out.
Then there's the new job. Since July, he has been the lead singer in Phil and Friends, a jam band led by ex-Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh that has plopped young Greene in front of huge audiences, such as the 20,000 people who attended the Langerado Music Festival on the Seminole reservation in the Florida Everglades in March, where Phil and Friends headlined alongside R.E.M. and the Beastie Boys.
A dream job for a Deadhead, but Greene was not a fan. He didn't know any of the Dead's songs.
"I never heard them before," he says. "Maybe that's a good thing."
Lesh heard Greene's 2006 album, "American Myth," on KFOG and caught Greene's set at Bonnaroo last year. He phoned Greene out of the blue and invited him to do some recording.
"Next thing I know," Green says, "he wants me to be in his band."
Greene calls it "a super opportunity."
"I'd be stupid not to recognize that when I see it," he says. "I jumped at it without thinking, 'What does this mean?' I love a lot of those songs now."
He also performs a few of his own songs with the Lesh band, although in extended versions. On his own, Greene gravitates to more classic-rock forms than jam-band music. He is, in fact, something of a stylistic throwback, and he knows it. Every record label he has worked with tells him the same thing, he says.
"They say, 'How do we sell your records? It doesn't fit with modern things. It doesn't fit with what's selling,' " he says. "I've always said I don't know - it's not up to me, even though, in my mind, I've become a little more modern. I think of those older records like folk records now. I don't know where the place is (for my music). Why can't it make its own place?
"It doesn't occur to me that much. I don't think about it. Just call it American rock."
With his Eurasian features and pasty-faced studio tan, Greene looks even younger than he is. His unruly black hair sits on top of his head like a bird's nest.
"My life is a like a country song," he says. "My daddy left when I was 13. I was the oldest of four kids. In the little town where I grew up, there was nothing to do but ride bikes or get in some kind of trouble."
His musical path started for him the summer before high school in the small town of Placerville, when the family's TV set was broken. Out of boredom, he pulled out his parents' old LP collection and record player that had been stored away in the basement. He set up the stereo and took out the old Ray Charles album "The Genius of Ray Charles."
"I'd never heard anything like it," Greene says, singing the opening horn riff of the Quincy Jones arrangement on the album's opening track, "Let the Good Times Roll."
He went back to high school a self-described "record geek," digging brother Ray, Lightnin' Hopkins, Doc Watson, Merle Haggard and all the other artists in his parents' old folk, blues and '60s rock record collection, while his classmates at high school in El Dorado Hills were tuned to N'Sync, the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. It was a Tom Waits records he was turned on to by his girlfriend's brother one summer on Cape Cod that persuaded Greene to give songwriting a try.
He was still a teenager when he met his manager, Marty DeAnda, who had gone to an open-mike night at a Sacramento nightclub to hear former Beau Brummels lead singer Sal Valentino, and Green was on the bill. DeAnda put out Greene's first two CDs on his own Dig Music label - and also recorded a CD's worth of Dylan tunes sung by both Greene and Valentino - but he signed Greene to Verve Records for his third album, "American Myth," recorded in - SF Chronicle - 4/08


IT'S possible, but hardly common, for a singer-songwriter to sound echoes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Gram Parsons, Elvis Costello and Paul Westerberg, all of which Jackie Greene does on his fifth album (in stores Tuesday).

The hard part, which Greene seems to pull off so effortlessly, is triggering those echoes without sacrificing an authentic voice of his own. That may be one meaning of the album's title: Greene, who plays Crash Mansion on April 11, seems comfortable acknowledging the ghosts of pop music past, perhaps because he's in thrall to none of them.

In "Uphill Mountain" alone, he references colorfully named characters such as Peeping Tom and Madame Rose, name-checks Elmore James and John Henry and tosses off such bons mots as "You got to take just what you are given/'Cause luck only matters with the cards and the women," staking his claim as a peer, not a shadow.

The San Francisco-based musician opens the album advising the listener, " California is the place to be, but I should warn you about the things I've seen." He proceeds to reel off one fascinating, detail-rich tale or morality play after another. Somehow, as literate as his lyrics can read, they never sound academic, rarely self-conscious: "I don't pretend to make the world feel better / I don't live on the moon," he sings in "I Don't Live in a Dream." No brag, just fact.

He's a skilled multi-instrumentalist and has been a virtual one-man band on previous albums, but this time he's assembled a crack team of Americana/roots music specialists to support him, among them Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Steve Berlin, drummer Pete Thomas, bassist Davey Farragher and steel guitarist par excellence Greg Leisz.

Greene's songs span the basest impulses of lust and revenge to the noblest spiritual aspirations -- everything that defines what it means to be human. And nary a ghost in sight.

-- Randy Lewis - LA Times


Discography

Giving Up The Ghost - 2008
Skinny Singers Strike Again - 2007
Small Tempest - 2007
The DIG Years - 2007
American Myth - 2006
Sweet Somewhere Bound - 2004
Gone Wanderin' - 2002
Rusty Nails - 2001

Photos

Bio

Where you're going has always been more important than where you've been.

By his music, Jackie Greene appears to have been through every major American musical influence: from country, to jazz, to folk to rock. And, marked by the release of his newest album American Myth, it's clear that Greene knows where he's going. His roots twist to create a unique sound, combining the introspectiveness of an engaging songwriter with the energy of a chemically charged rock band.

Growing up in a small, rural town in Northern California, Greene took to music quickly, eventually outgrowing the tastes of his peers. On his own, he discovered the lost sides of Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters. America’s past it seems, was all available on 12” wax.

Shortly after high school, Greene took the lessons of these records to this stage. His career picked up steam as he played hoot-nights and coffeehouses. Dubbed a 'young blues prodigy' he moved to Sacramento, releasing the self-produced album Rusty Nails from the trunk of his car. It led to his signing with indie label Dig Music, eventually morphing into the folksier artist seen on 2003's Gone Wanderin'. Always progressing, Greene leaped ahead again on Sweet Somewhere Bound, an amalgam of rustic blues and classic country.

By the tender age of 23, Greene had 3 albums, a DVD and miles of touring under his belt. But in 2005 and 2006, he took an unexpected turn from acoustic folk to rock and roll, releasing American Myth for the Verve Forecast/Universal label and putting together a world-class rock band along the way.

The journey, though by no means easy, is now the depth behind his music. From humble beginnings in foothill dive bars to a world wide fan base, Jackie Greene has done everything his own way. While others waste their time—and their credibility—on becoming slaves to the spotlight, you'll find Greene mastering his craft.

"I've been writing, recording and performing non-stop. I've lived in cars, hotels, basements…slept on floors, couches, strange
girl's beds. I wrote lots of songs in those places. Some I'll never remember, but that's all part of it, I guess.”

With a stream-of-consciousness vibe, many of Greene's songs reflect a certain spontaneity, traveling quickly from inspiration to album to fan. Each one recorded honestly, and then given to the world.

"Music that's too perfect isn't music anymore. It's better to just capture a moment in time." says Greene of his philosophy.

Integrity, in the end, is nothing without quality. So it is here that Greene delivers; backing each ounce of sincerity with a pound of great music. Whether it's a soulful ballad or a ballsy rocker, you can count on breathtaking melody and poetic lyricism. The smoky voice that lifts the choruses of rock album American Myth is the same one that whispers the sorrowful verses in Sweet
Somewhere Bound. Just as the "clap your hands" enthusiasm of the bluegrass flavored Gone Wanderin' quickly turns to the passion of Rusty Nails. It is this ability to truly capture emotion that makes his music equally meaningful to the loved and the loveless.

"I've made four records in my life and each one is different on purpose," Greene remarks on his diverse catalog. "If you do the same record over and over, it becomes a boring day job. I believe it's important to stretch as far as your bones will let you."

Greene's enigmatic work then follows the human theme of contradiction—the natural result of philosophy rooted in experimentation and growth. As comfortable in an arena as an empty bar, with an acoustic or with electric, Jackie Greene comes to symbolize a rare versatility. He's open to trying just about anything…except being tied down. It's what makes him so relatable for the sinners, the saints, the dreamers or the broken-hearted. Regardless of musical tastes or background, the emotional honesty and musical skill transcend all. For this, Jackie Greene, at just 25 years old, becomes an artist fans will enjoy for
decades to come.