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Jackie Blue

Stewart Oksenhorn

Jackie Greene seems too young, too full of promise to suffer. The Sacramento singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is just 23, and his wonderful new album, his third, “Sweet Somewhere Bound,” is about to be released. And this is no slick creation of the pop-music machine, built to rise and crash: “Sweet Somewhere Bound” is informed by the forlorn acoustic blues of the Mississippi Delta, and Greene plays virtually all of the instrumental parts on the album. Plus Greene spent much of the early part of this year on tour with Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang. But for many artists, making art is not about making a career, and Jackie Greene may be a textbook example. His career, already impressive for a young man whose music is built around strumming an acoustic guitar and singing about suicide and sorrow, may be about to take off. Still the sad-eyed, cigarette-smoking Greene, who in a phone interview comes off as open and affable, says he is as down as such sad, sad songs as “Alice on the Rooftop” and “Don’t Mind Me, I’m Only Dying Slowly.” And like a good number of musicians before him, the increasing number of fans is far from an antidote to his malaise. “My natural instinct is to not want to be in front of a lot of people. So I guess I picked the wrong career,” said Greene from Winnipeg, where he has just appeared at the three-day Winnipeg Folk Festival. Among the things that give Greene comfort is the realization that he is not the only musician feeling as he does. Greene has been keeping a close eye on Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy – a musical idol for Greene, and someone who has been tormented by success, expectations, band feuds and just life. Wilco has recently released “A Ghost Is Born,” its latest groundbreaking, mystifying CD, and Tweedy, with his precarious balance of brilliance and despair, is again in the news.”I’m reading all these stories about Jeff Tweedy and his panic thing he goes through,” said Greene. “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.”Singing the blues”Sweet Somewhere Bound” was made nearly a year ago, when Greene first started venturing away from his native northern California. The road was tough for a 22-year-old, especially one who played often as a solo performer. It was during this low period that Greene wrote “About Cell Block #9,” about a man who walks in on his lover and his best friend, and shoots his way to a life sentence; “I Don’t Care About My Baby”; and the Dylanesque titled “Don’t Mind Me, I’m Only Dying” (with the haunted, Dylanesque lyric, “the ghost of a weeping, weddingless bride/Who should have been married but never arrived”). Apart from the lyrics, the album features some of the loneliest, most longing, harmonica wailing, and spare, weepy acoustic guitar chords.”I guess that’s just where I was at when I wrote the songs. That’s a picture of where I was at the time,” said Greene, who performs – with his two-piece band of drummer Ben Lefever and bassist Hence Phillips – as part of the Snowmass Free Summer of Music Series. (The concert also kicks off the weekend-long Massive Music & Movies event. Greene’s show will be followed by a screening of “The Blues Brothers. On Friday, July 16, it’s a pairing of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and “Almost Famous.” Saturday, July 17, features a double bill of Barbara Cue and Liquid Soul, capped by a screening of “Pulp Fiction.”) “I started to feel a lot of the pressure, being on the road. It starts off really fantastic, really exciting. But it quickly turns weary and difficult.”For all that, the new album barely feels like a one-trick pony, endlessly repeating the downer theme. The songs range from bluesy ballads like “Miss Madeline (3 Ways to Love Her)” to the honey-toned “Honey I Been Thinking About You” to “About Cell Block #9,” the peppy country rocker that kicks off the album. Greene’s voice can explore a variety of pained feelings – despondent, agonized, hopeful, hushed. And Greene is such a fine musician – a ripping guitarist and an accomplished Hammond organ player, in addition to his fine voice – that listening to his downbeat themes doesn’t drag you down.Greene said the introspective quality of “Sweet Somewhere Bound” reflects his discomfort acclimating to the life of a road musician. “All of the songs speak to that in a sense,” said Greene. “Some of them are my imagination going wild, and some – like ‘Sweet Somewhere Bound’ and ‘Don’t Mind Me, I’m Only Dying Slowly’ – are definitely about that.”Outcast or outstanding?Greene should be accustomed to feeling out of sorts among his surroundings. It seems to be his natural state.Greene had practically grown up sitting on a piano bench. He gravitated toward the classic British rock of Cream and Led Zeppelin, and traced their influences back to American blues and country artists. “I wanted to know who wrote those songs. ‘Who is this cat, Willie Dixon?'” he said.By the time he picked up guitar, at 10, and started writing songs, at 14, Greene was taking his inspiration from the likes of Hank Williams, Lightning Hopkins and Leadbelly. “That’s just the kind of music I liked and listened to, older American music,” he said. “That’s what influenced me.”That left him well out of step with his contemporaries. It was the mid- to late ’90s, and the big things at Greene’s Sacramento high school were not Mississippi John Hurt and Tom Waits but ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys.”I was kind of the weirdo who didn’t like anything that was out then,” he said. “I liked Ray Charles, but most of the people in school thought that was nostalgic and dumb. “My close friends liked the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. But the boy bands were really popular and to us that was annoying. But all the popular kids liked it, so we decided not to like it. We thought it was crap.”Greene responded to his outcast status by sitting at home, “stealing all Ray Charles’ licks, that kind of thing,” he said.Right out of high school, Greene started playing the clubs around Sacramento. In the autumn of 2001, Marty DeAnda, owner of the label DIG Music, happened into a Sacramento hoot night and heard an old-soul voice coming out of a skinny 21-year-old. Within months, Greene was signed to DIG, and in late 2002 he released “Gone Wanderin'” (also a somber album, with tunes like “Down in the Valley Woe” and “By the Side of the Road, Dressed to Kill”). The accolades have come quickly since; “Gone Wanderin'” earned a California Music Award for Best Blues/Roots Album and found its way onto the national American charts. Earlier this year Greene released his first DVD, “Broken Hearts, Dusty Roads,” Early last year, Greene opened for Susan Tedeschi at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, and the gig became something of a breakthrough. Since then, Greene has opened for B.B. King, Taj Mahal and John Hiatt and been featured at the Newport Folk Festival, the San Francisco Blues Festival and the Ann Arbor Folk Festival.That success hasn’t translated to inner satisfaction. It’s already been a busy summer of roadwork for Greene, who has played numerous dates in northern California and the Northwest, and did a short Midwest stretch. It’s been three days in Winnipeg, and the schedule is wearing on the 23-year-old. “I’m psyched to go home,” said Greene, summing up his feelings.But maybe there is relief around the corner. Albums have a long lag time between recording and release, and Greene says he is not, at the moment, as agonized as “Sweet Somewhere Bound” would suggest.”I’m writing different songs now,” he said. “I’ve adjusted to the weariness. It was kind of shocking a year ago. Before that, I had only played on the West Coast. But I haven’t gotten over it. It’s still tiring.”And even an album like “Sweet Somewhere Bound” can start to sound like something other than relentlessly downhearted. At first, Greene practically apologizes for the “depressing feel” of the album. But then he corrects himself and completes the picture.”There’s a ray of light at the end of the dark tunnel,” Greene concluded.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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