Out of pocket

O Euterpe, o Melpomene: I am a hypocrite. Last week, in this very space, I was indicting the entitled class for cutting in line, and days later I was on R Street on a Friday after work, jumping the queue at a Jackie Greene show. Chalk it up to tiredness, the kind that sets in when it’s early evening, and you got up at 4 a.m., and by nightfall your thinking abilities had turned to crisp wheat toast. And I am sorry.

That said, Greene’s homecoming at the Empire Events Center was quite the swell affair. Greene’s 18-song set wasn’t preceded by an opening act, so he and his band played for almost two hours, with much of the repertoire coming from his just-released fourth album, American Myth.

What I’d really like to say here is that I was totally bowled over, that Greene’s performance was so stellar it redefined that amalgam of blues, folk, country and rock called Americana by sheer force of personality. But, one, that would be untrue, and, two, that wouldn’t be fair to Greene, whose performance at his local album-release party was, for the most part, quite strong. And anyway, setting up unrealistic straw-man expectations is unjust to an artist.

Greene’s new band, however, could use a bit of seasoning. Now, I’m not advocating illegal herb consumption here, but maybe locking these guys in a hotel room with a pile of old records by the Meters, Little Feat, the Band and Al Green and not letting them out until they intuitively understand the nuances of swing and the joy of cooking might not be a bad idea. Greene’s good songs deserve to be animated like that.

Perhaps guitarist Nathan Dale, bassist Jeremy Plog and drummer Bruce Spencer were nervous. There were times when they did catch fire, when they picked up Greene’s cues and ratcheted the music to the next level. But for much of the evening, they played with the kind of foursquare stiffness you’d expect at an Eddie Money casino gig—totally professional, but not quite in the pocket, and at times laying on more cheese than the songs called for. And on one song, the lovely acoustic ballad “Never Satisfied (Revisited),” Spencer sounded like he was repeatedly hitting a floor tom against the beat, effectively wrecking the song.

This is starting to read like a negative review. It shouldn’t. My point is that sometime during the past few years of touring with blues icons like B.B. King, Greene learned the art of how to be a shaman. True bluesmen are masters at shamanism—sucking in energy from the audience during a set and then sending it back in one focused lightning punch. I’ve seen King knock an entire roomful of people down like bowling pins with a single, artfully timed note from his guitar, Lucille.

But this band hasn’t been initiated into the hoodoo, so it couldn’t pick up the nuances. And the places Greene is going will require that attention to nuance. In his case, the band, collectively, is like a sports car. For Greene to negotiate those twisting mountain turns, he needs it to behave more like a Porsche and less like a Plymouth Barracuda.