A talk with Jackie Greene
When Jackie Greene and his band played Boston recently, he strolled on stage at the Paradise Rock Club in front of an intimate, but enthusiastic crowd of about 500 who came to hear his songs such as “Animal” and “Like a Ball and Chain.” • He could just as easily be back this summer or fall playing the Boston Garden in front of 15,000 dancing, tie-dye-wearing fans eager to do some serious truckin’.
Thus is the dual life these days of the 29-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist from California, who leads his own band and released the stellar “Giving Up the Ghost” in 2008.
He was also tapped by bassist Phil Lesh to join his group Phil Lesh and Friends and travel the world playing and singing classic Grateful Dead songs to the masses. Even though he was born and raised in California, Greene is too young to have experienced the Grateful Dead.
“I had no connection growing up,” he says, in an e-mail interview from a recent tour stop. “I mean, I knew who Jerry [Garcia] was and the big songs: ‘Casey Jones,’ ‘Sugar Magnolia,’ ‘Box of Rain.’ … Stuff like that. But I never heard ‘Dark Star’ or ‘Sugaree.’ ” And now that he’s played alongside both Lesh and Bob Weir he’s practically an unofficial member of the Grateful Dead.
“Ha, ha. No,” says Greene, “[I’m] just a guy who plays and sings with them sometimes.” As for his solo career, Greene is no newcomer. “Ghost” is his fifth album and he says he just finished recording the follow-up and is hoping to release it this year. “We may release it in stages or do something very different with it,” he says. “Ghost” is filled with a mix of rock, blues and soul backing some introspective lyrics that range from spiritual to lust and revenge. It has roots in music’s past but carves out its own identity.
So how does a guy who is too young to ever have attended a Dead concert end up on stage with Lesh playing to tens of thousands of Deadheads?
“Well Phil tells the story a little better, but in a nutshell: I had a song on the radio some years back called ‘I’m So Gone.’ Somehow Phil caught wind of it, liked it, and came to see us play. I think it was Bonnaroo [perhaps, 2006], Greene recalls. “Months passed and I get a phone call out of nowhere. It was Phil. He asked me to come into the studio with him to play and sing on some tunes. I was delighted. Pretty soon we struck up a friendship and next thing I knew, I was learning a bunch of fantastic new tunes.”
New tunes to him; not to Deadheads, who know every song by heart, when they were played by the band, and who took which particular solo.
Soon, Greene was on tour with Phil Lesh and Friends playing and singing Dead classics like “Dark Star” and “Scarlet Begonias.’’ “I think partly that’s what attracted Phil – the notion that if I sang these old tunes, they would be fresh, legitimately, since I’d never heard many of them before,” he says.
This would seem to be a guitar player’s dream, to be up on stage in front of throngs of fans playing music they adore. But as Greene tells it, it didn’t come without a few “oh-shit” moments.
“It occurred to me more than once on those tours: Here I am in front of thousands of people singing a song that every person in this building probably knows better than me. What if I screw up? What if they hate me? I know these songs are like gospel to some people. How do I honor that? In the end, you can only do what you do and hope that it works out.
“The deeper story about that first PLF tour is this: Those who were watching closely may have witnessed a meta-morphosis of sorts. I truly felt different after those shows.
Almost enlightened. It was a different way of playing music that I wasn’t accustomed to and it was marvelous,” says Greene, who recently released a three-song EP of Dead covers for free download on his website (www.jackiegreene.com).
Recently, Greene spent some time in Jamaica with Weir and his band Ratdog. He has also collaborated on tours with Warren Haynes, another charter member of the Dead, as well as the Allman Brothers. All of this pretty much cements the young guitarist a solid spot with the jam-band crowd. It’s a spot that’s a little odd for Greene’s own music, which he doesn’t necessarily believe fits the genre.
“At the end of the day, we aren’t really a jam band,” Greene says. “Never aspired to be. We get lumped into that circuit and happily just do our thing anyway. We are definitely more open and fearless onstage now, but I still hesitate to call us a jam band.
“What I appreciate is the spirit of the thing. Doesn’t matter what you call it, really.” The real difference between playing his own tunes and playing with Lesh is the number of people in the audience, a difference between playing to a few hundred Jackie Greene fans in a club and playing to an arena of thousands.
“It’s a different feeling for sure,” he says. “But one thing remains certain: You have to connect. 10 or 10,000 … doesn’t matter. You have to try and connect with the audience. I know it’s cliche and old news – but it’s true. Music is entertainment, yeah sure. But it’s also a language. It can be a romantic dialogue. A mournful soliloquy with onlookers. It can be playful, sexy, offensive. The only way to get reactions from people is to connect. That’s the truth.”
That connection has become even more intense and now includes social networking, something that Greene at least from afar seems more than comfortable with – chatting with fans on Facebook and blogging when the inspiration strikes him. But he says even that is more of a challenge than it seems.
“It’s not a natural thing for me, necessarily. I’m pretty anti-social. But … Facebook is an easy way to let in the people who want to know a little bit about your life.
It’s pretty painless. I write blogs for a couple reasons: because 1) sometimes I’m bored and have nothing to do, and 2) to help crystallize my own thoughts for my own peace of mind.” A recent blog entry included a lengthy missive on his love of baseball. Asked about his favorite team, the lovable loser Cubs, it’s no secret his baseball roots run deep.
“Yeah,” he says, punctuated with a sigh. “I’m also a Giants fan. I’ve loved baseball my whole life. I played up through high school but never really got any bigger. I learned how to sing instead. But if the Fresno Grizzlies called me and told me to report to spring training, I’d say adios to music. Well, not really but I’d definitely think twice about it!”