Jackie Greene’s “I’m So Gone” opens with a tribal rhythm that echoes the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”. He quickly switches to an American blues on slide guitar with soul far beyond the age of the musician.
“I hold on to something that I can feel,” Greene hums with a slight pinch that sounds more like Memphis than Northern California.
The “something” – or maybe someone“Greene was holding on because maybe it was Phil Lesh. The Grateful Dead bassist grabbed Greene’s Bonnaroo set in 2006, a performance that inspired New York Times music critic Jon Pareles has declared Greene “the prince of America”.
A year later, Greene’s phone rang. It was Lesh. He asked Greene if he would be interested in helping him work on some music. As they say, the rest was history.
“[Lesh] became a mentoring figure and brought me into the larger world of the Grateful Dead, ”said Greene.
One of the first times Lesh and Greene performed together was in a studio and their connection was obvious.
“Before you know it we were playing [the Grateful Dead’s] ‘Scarlet Begonias’, and a few weeks later I was on the road playing with Phil Lesh and Friends, ”says Greene.
The learning curve was steep. Greene knew some of the more common Dead tracks like “Truckin ‘” and “Casey Jones”, but his upbringing was not close to what is required to perform a full set of Grateful Dead pillars, songs like “Tennessee Jed” “,” Ship of Fools “and” China Cat Sunflower “weren’t even on her radar. Ahead of his first show with Phil Lesh and Friends, Greene remembers the gangly, spotty legend who approached him backstage and told him he would be performing “Sugaree” that night.
“I said, ‘Phil, I never even heard that song,’” Greene recalls. “And he said,” You will be wonderful! ” Looking back, [Lesh] had some sort of forethought or faith – there was something he saw [in me] that made him think, ‘this will work.’ I was constantly put in these situations — I didn’t know the details, like what Jerry did in 1975. I was just learning the spirit, the flesh of the songs, because that’s what I do. Maybe it was cool for [Lesh] or something. God bless him, for it opened up my world.
After a few months of touring with Phil and his friends, they started to integrate some of Greene’s tracks, including “I’m So Gone”, into the sets.
The dead zone
When the Grateful Dead kiss a musician, it’s like getting official endorsement built in with tens of millions of loyal fans. It’s also an invitation to collaborate with members of The Dead and other musicians who have been accepted into the extended Dead family over the years. Greene remains a part-time member of Phil Lesh and Friends while ping pong from one fantastic opportunity to the next: in 2010 he joined Trigger Hippy, a supergroup that included the Black Crowes’ Steve Gorman and Joan Osborne. Greene also toured with Bob Weir of The Dead and Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes. The acoustic trio has been dubbed WRG for Weir, Robinson, Greene. In 2013, Greene joined the Black Crowes as lead guitarist until they broke up in 2015.
“It comes down to musical instincts,” says Greene. “I think I’ve honed my musical instincts over the years to know where I can fit into a lot of these situations – I don’t have to stand out. It’s comfortable for other musicians, which is why I think I’m invited to do a lot of these things.
In addition to the ease with which Greene moves back and forth, from leader to Wrecking Crew type session player, he is also a fast student.
“I don’t want to brag, but I learn things quickly and can sing along and play the keyboard if needed,” he says. “But it’s all about musical instinct. I know a lot of cats with great musical instincts, and they’re fun to play because you don’t have to talk; you just got into something, and everyone knows it. You can all get started in a language – not real words, musical language – and you all know what to do. From there, you hone your skills in improvisation and different situations. Sky is the limit.”
Musical instinct and speaking the language of music without saying a word is a definite hallmark of the Grateful Dead, maybe that’s how Lesh got to smell Greene.
The forced break
The recent onslaught of stormy weather brought down a large tree, blocking Greene’s driveway. He and a neighbor had spent most of the previous day chopping down the tree and hauling it.
Greene settled on the outskirts of Sacramento in Orangevale, near the foot of the Sierras. Since the start of the pandemic, he has found new uses for his musical instincts.
Shortly after its launch, Greene launched “Live from Backstage,” free concerts streamed to Facebook from his living room, where he has his home studio. It has averaged about two shows streaming per month from the start.
“I was announcing it and people were writing comments on social media about what they wanted to hear,” he explains. “I would pick 20 songs that I thought were appropriate, put them on a list and play those songs. So the fans made the setlists, basically. It’s funny because people come up with some weird covers that I could try to do, something that I wouldn’t normally think of doing.
Each unique “Live from Backstage” ensemble presents a versatile range of music; from Townes Van Zandt and Billy Joe Shaver to Harry Nilsson and the Who, Greene has always kept it fresh. He also presented specially curated sets: “Dylan and Dead: A Tribute to Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead”, “Blues and Soul: Classic Songs from Another Era” and the Rolling Stones’ Sticky fingers performed in its entirety with a full band.
While live broadcasts from home have helped Greene maintain the shape of his live performances, most of his time away from touring has been focused on his son, who was born during the pandemic. Time spent at home also allowed the singer-songwriter to focus on writing. It helps to be surrounded by all the tools you need to create.
“Between the livestreams and the family, I’ve had a lot of time to work on an album, which I started some time ago, and to record – I’m about to finish a lot. Maybe the forced break feels more like an incentive to work on something. “
Meanwhile, after 45 consecutive weeks, the Backstage shows have evolved into a fully switched, four-camera HD video stream with studio-quality sound.
“The live broadcast takes a long time, but that’s what I do,” says Greene. “I need to do it, and it helps me in a lot of ways. “
Kyle Stefano, whom Greene married in 2017, is the designated “switcher”, switching between cameras during streams.
“Finally, we gave her a mic, which we call the ‘woman’s mic’,” says Greene, laughing. “We have become like a duo – she will step in and speak. It’s a fun thing to do on a Sunday night. It’s organic. We are not trying to make a living by doing it; we do it for the fans because they’re awesome!
All of Greene’s family are now part of his creative process. With Stefano helping with the live broadcasts, their 3-year-old daughter Luca and son Ozzie, who recently celebrated his first birthday, are helping to inspire his next record.
Technically, Greene can read music; however, he is not quick to admit it.
” I do not read [music] good enough where it would be useful, ”he admits. “It takes me forever – I might as well not be able to read it.” I am 100% ear-trained I would say. “
When asked how he approaches songwriting, Greene talks about his affinity for gardening.
“I plant a lot of fruit trees and other things,” he says. “I built a greenhouse – I find myself working on a lot of projects. “
It’s by tackling all of these projects at home that the words start to show. Songs seem to come when he isn’t thinking about it or trying to write.
“I start to think about the songs I’m working on and I kind of have a melody in my head,” he explains. “It’s like I’m in an area while my body is doing something else, like digging holes for fruit trees. Then i go [into my studio] and fiddle with the guitar or the piano.
When Greene has a new song, he deconstructs it, records several variations of the same song, and sees what sticks together.
“I’ve always played guitar, and I’ve always played piano, but I don’t consider myself a guitar virtuoso or a great pianist,” he says. “I am able to get my mind around and am able to play well enough to cope with most situations. By the time I show the band a new song, these are pretty much full-fledged demos.
At this point, Greene’s group joins him in the studio to work on the hash of the details. Over two decades earlier, his songwriting process and musical execution, which led to some of his early EPs and tracks like “Crazy Comes Easy”, was very different. Greene himself performed all the instruments of the songs and recorded, edited and produced everything in his basement, back when he lived in Brooklyn.
“I don’t know if my approach to songwriting is different, but my influences have broadened,” says Greene. “Playing with Phil [Lesh], Bob [Weir] and these guys rub off on you. I was introduced to [the Grateful Dead] world, and here I am. It’s been a long, weird journey, man!
This journey guided Greene to a happy life surrounded by family and, of course, music. He had thought that his new record, aptly titled Family, would be ready by Christmas, but that will not happen. He’s halfway there. The tentative release date is now summer 2022.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s the record of my career,” says Greene. “We really like what we have so far. We do it ourselves, so we take all the time we need. It’s a little hard to explain what it looks like, because we’ve been sitting on it for a while.
Greene tries to describe the album, the very first he ever did with his band on tour: he’s stuffed with R&B with a lot of blues influence. He doesn’t want to say too much, but the theme is family.
“The thing that was close to my heart in 2021 was family,” says Greene. “I think a lot of people feel that way. “
Jackie Greene will be performing at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. doors) on Friday, December 31 at Felton Music Hall, 6275 Highway 9, Felton, $ 69 plus fees / $ 74 day of show (limited tickets available). Proof of vaccination or negative Covid test (with corresponding ID); mask required inside. 704-7113. feutremusichall.com.