Grown-up Jackie Greene plays Belly Up Aspen
ASPEN – If turning 30 years old, at the end of November, didn’t seal the fact that Jackie Greene had turned into an adult, his actions a few weeks later did. On the day we spoke, Greene was driving into San Francisco to go tuxedo shopping.”I’m buying my first tuxedo,” he said. “You’re never an adult until you buy your first piece of formalwear. So this is a big deal.” As for whether hitting 30 was a big deal, Greene was noncommittal: “I guess that remains to be seen.” But for that one night, he certainly should have felt like a big deal. The singer-songwriter celebrated three decades of life with a concert at San Francisco’s famed Fillmore Auditorium. After a set by Greene with his regular band; then a set by the Skinny Singers, a group that he co-fronts with fellow Bay Area musician Tim Bluhm; Greene welcomed a bunch of guests to the stage, including Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, Gov’t Mule bassist Jorgen Carlsson, and John Molo, who has been the regular drummer for Lesh, Bruce Hornsby and John Fogerty. Led by Greene, the impromptu group played a bunch of Beatles and Grateful Dead songs.The progress of Greene’s maturation might be especially interesting to fans in the Roaring Fork Valley. In the summer of 2004, just before his first appearance in the Aspen area, Greene expressed how much of a lost kid he felt as a 23-year-old out on the road, basically on his own, acclimating to a different town day after day. He was tired, unhappy, unsure of himself. “It starts off really fantastic, really exciting. But it quickly turns weary and difficult,” he said of his early touring experience. At the time, he took comfort in the example of Jeff Tweedy, who, despite being the leader of the massively acclaimed Wilco and despite being some 15 years older than Greene, was confronting pill addictions offstage and panic attacks on it. “It may be a sick thing to say, but it’s nice to know there are other people going through that. It makes me feel more comfortable,” Greene said.Then, as if to punctuate those words, Greene passed out mid-concert on the stage on Snowmass Village’s Fanny Hill.”I hoped no one remembered that. It was the weirdest thing – I passed out, crawled under the stage and woke up thinking, ‘What happened?'” Greene says now. “The good news is, I haven’t passed out in Aspen since – or in Telluride, or Steamboat Springs. I do better with it now. That experience freaked me out about the altitude thing. I always have oxygen with me now when I play up there – it’s like a security blanket.”In physique, Greene has graduated from scrawny to skinny. He has developed a sense of style: Gone is the spiky teenage hairdo, replaced by straight black hair that, on stage, usually flows from a Panama hat down his shoulders. The get-up is topped by a vest and sleeveless top that reveal his relatively developed arms. His eyes seem not nearly as sleepy and sad as they used to. Along with looking more self-assured, he is handling most aspects of the touring life better these days. “There are things you never get used to,” Greene, who makes his Belly Up Aspen debut on Sunday, Jan. 16, said. “You want a good meal, you’re in the middle of Kansas and you can’t find one – that’s something you don’t get used to. But the impermanence, that’s pretty normal to me now.”••••Greene’s music has always been mature – and never lacking an element of world-weariness. After starting to play the bars around his native northern California in his mid-teens, he released “Gone Wanderin'” in 2002. The album had Greene sounding at times like a worn-down bluesman who had seen too much: The title character of the slow, folk-blues “Gracie” says, “I’m tired of this town/ And I’m sure this town is tired of me.” Greene was all of 21 when he recorded the song. The album also featured such songs as “Down in the Valley Woe” and “Cry Yourself Dry.” That album didn’t relieve Greene of all his young-man’s blues; his next album, 2004’s “Sweet Somewhere Bound,” sported such titles as “Alice on the Rooftop” and “Sad to Say Goodbye,” and closed with “Don’t Mind Me, I’m Only Dying Slow.”But much of his growing up, as a person and performer, has come in an unlikely setting – in the traveling camp of the post-Grateful Dead. In 2006, Greene read some nice words that Lesh had said about Greene’s 2006 album, “American Myth.” Greene sent on his thanks, figuring the correspondence would end there. But a few months later, he received a call from Lesh himself, with an invitation to join his rotating ensemble, Phil & Friends. For most of two years, Greene, who had never been a Deadhead, found himself filling the shoes of the late Jerry Garcia, singing Dead favorites to the faithful.That gig ended when Lesh turned his attention from Phil & Friends to The Dead and Furthur, bands that featured other former members of the Grateful Dead. But Greene, who showed a remarkable facility for the Dead material, remains a member in good standing of Dead-world. The occasion for buying the tuxedo was a benefit concert, arranged by Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, for an orphanage in Peru.”It was great,” Greene said of his time with Lesh. “The things I learned musically are beyond counting; they’re incalculable. The whole experience was extremely valuable to me, and it still is. Learning those songs and that kind of music, it’s a real gift. I’m still stoked on it.”Foremost among the lessons was discovering how to walk into the musical unknown. “Phil is kind of fearless musically, stepping out there,” Greene said. “When I started with him, I was not as open to exploring, experimenting. I’d say, ‘Let’s not do that. That’s scary; that’s crazy.’ He instilled in me the idea that you can fail onstage. You have this idea as a performer that everyone will notice every little mess-up you make. And that’s not true. That’s been a big lesson. That’s caused me to be a little exploratory in my playing and singing and music. It takes a lot of the pressure off.Perhaps most impressive is that, after playing the Dead repertoire and in Dead fashion for two years, Greene has kept his musical personality intact. “Giving Up the Ghost,” the album he released in 2008 (and on which he played guitars, keyboards, bass and drums), stuck more or less to the rootsy, tight, song-oriented music Greene started out with – music that has earned him the title, the Prince of Americana, a label given him by The New York Times.This past June Greene released “Till the Light Comes.” The album was inspired, Greene said, in large part by San Francisco. Co-produced by Tim Bluhm, it was recorded in the Mission Bells studio that Greene and Bluhm opened a few years ago.”In my mind, it’s more pop, a ’70s San Francisco thing,” Greene, who recently moved from the city to near Lodi, roughly halfway between San Fran and Sacramento. (“I’m doing the country thing,” he said of the move.) “That’s got to do with the influences around it. Tim and I wrote it in our studio, so there’s a lot of San Francisco in it. From writing and recording to producing, there’s that stream, that San Francisco thing. That’s where I was living, and all my friends were living there. That’s the overall vibe we had while writing and recording. To other people it might not be apparent, but to me it’s obvious.”The San Francisco he speaks of, though, doesn’t mean long guitar solos and loose arrangements. West Coast, ’70s soft rock is evident on the song “Stranger in Sand.” The sounds get poppier – synthesizers, New Wave beats, hooky guitars – on both “Medicine” and “Spooky Tina.” Greene reverts to his more usual form with a pair of countryish winners, “1961” and “Take Me Back in Time,” but the sense of experimentation that Greene learned from Lesh is seen in the album as a whole.While Greene hasn’t adopted the Dead style completely, he hasn’t severed the ties completely. He still keeps a handful of the songs in his setlists. And even if he could shake the fans who latched onto him because of the association with Lesh, he wouldn’t.”I say with complete honesty, there are no greater music fans than the Grateful Dead fans,” Greene said. “They’ll come rain or shine. It’s ridiculous. Talk about a true music fan, and that’s a Deadhead. They love live music, and that’s what I do.”Greene said he has been looking other places of late for musical inspiration. Recently he found a record by the Southern funk band Wet Willie, “Country Side of Life,” that he adored when he was 16.”A lot of stuff from high school is coming back to me,” Greene said. “Is that a midlife crisis?”email@example.com
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