The freewheeling Jackie Greene
A young country-blues troubadour leaves his musical footprint down in Monterey
Please. No Jack Zimmerman jokes.
Twenty-three-year-old and current Sacramento resident Jackie Greene is no flash-in-the-pan Dylan wannabe, even though he shares some undeniable similarities with the still-active icon. In some circles, this is a heretical stance, but Greene sings and plays the harmonica with much more digestible clairvoyance. OK, his lyrics are not as challenging or daring as the Blonde on Blonde vagabond poet’s intentional translucence or expressionist brush strokes. But the kid is precociously earthy and strapped with multi-instrumental talent. He also has an innate confidence that saturates and strengthens his three albums and—even more so—his live performances.
Greene’s channeling of American roots music smacks of a modern midnight Faustian soul swap at a deserted country crossroads. His sound is familiar yet fresh. And it connects with audiences on emotional as well as artistic levels, as he shifts from acoustic and electric guitars to piano, Hammond B-3 organ and harmonica, while singing about such Americana staples as whiskey-fueled nights, love, betrayal, jail, loneliness, dead-end jobs and wanderlust.
But don’t just take my word for it. Allow me to escort you to the recent 47th annual Monterey Jazz Festival at the 20-acre Monterey Fairgrounds, where, from September 17 to September 19, an estimated 500 artists and 45,000 fans congregated on and around seven stages for three nights and two days of music, food and libations. It was here that Greene not only received standing ovations at two separate stages, but also sold more CDs and DVDs and signed more autographs at the Tower Records booth than any other participating artist.
The traditional Saturday-afternoon blues party at the festival, which featured Greene, has been very, very good to me over the years. I once shared a backstage smoke with the legendary James Cotton, who punctuated one particular tale of the road by hoisting up his colored, pocketed T-shirt to expose a gunshot scar. Another memorable celebration of the blues evolved into a contrast of style when charismatic vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon summoned longhaired, love-beaded Eric Burdon from the audience to sing a few shuffles with his large, immaculately tuxedoed band.
This year, the party reconvened with the lean, mannish boy Greene as both point man and surprise highlight. Greene is no stranger to the festival scene and has opened for such luminaries as B.B. King, Junior Brown, Johnny Lang, Los Lobos and Susan Tedeschi. Here, he more than warmed up the crowd for main arena headliner Buddy Guy; he left it in flames.
Greene, bassist Hence Phillips and drummer Ben Lefever, all accessorized with dark sunglasses, strolled out casually as the velvety red arena stage curtain parted at 1 p.m. to a smattering of applause from the less-than-half-filled venue. Greene was tucked into a black, zippered, long-sleeved turtleneck shirt; black felt boots; and blue jeans, with his dark mop-top haircut skirting his ears but obscuring his forehead. His sudden acoustic-Gibson strumming and sweet harp, wired to his shoulders with Dylanesque nonchalance, turned the jump beat of “Judgement Day” into an exhilarating wakeup call under the glare of a chilly gray sky.
“Oh, my God, he’s just a kid,” gasped a middle-aged woman as Greene began an 11-song rotation through Sweet Somewhere Bound, Gone Wanderin’ and Rusty Nails, his three albums for Dig Music. “I didn’t expect this.” “Yeah, lady. And they didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition, either,” cracked a heavy-set, beer-sipping man in parachute-sized Bermuda shorts, a polo shirt and sandals. But she was not alone in an audience whose median age probably was twice that of the performer who stood before it. Greene was about to substantially fatten his fan base.
As a dozen photographers jockeyed for position in the sawdust-strewn area in front of the elevated stage, Greene finished the tune with the same burst of energy with which it began, tossed a “Yeah. How y’all doin’?” to the gathering masses and broke into the wryly humored “Honey, I’ve Been Thinking About You.” His third tune, the slow shuffle of “Tell Me Mama, Tell Me Right”—a thematic cousin to Taj Mahal’s “Easy Rider”—showcased a strong, commanding voice that belied Greene’s size and years. He then stripped to a white, well-pressed, short-sleeved dress shirt and picked up his Telecaster for the electric boogaloo rhythm of “The Lord Mistreats Me” (“and the Devil done did me wrong”) and gutsy “Rusty Nails,” which speaks of a love lost to another man.
Phillips responded to the first loud cheers and wolf whistles from the audience by acknowledging, “That’s Jackie Greene!” which ignited even more exuberant applause, as the growing crowd reciprocated the band’s vigor.
“Mexican Girl,” with Phillips instigating an audience clap-along, was colored with a cantina-conjuring lead guitar break. And Greene shifted to piano and then Hammond B-3 organ, much to the crowd’s delight, for the honky-tonk “Freeport Boulevard.” The following ballad, “Falling Back,” wafted through the arena with smoky Tom Waits nuances.
Greene certainly had the crowd on his side until a slow switch back to his acoustic Gibson threatened to cripple the show’s momentum. A friend listening to the show live over a car radio said later that the dead air time seemed to last an eternity. “He’s losing his audience,” warned the nearby Bermuda-clad hulk. “He better hurry and get them back.” And he was right. The crowd was drifting into pockets of loud socializing and, whether Greene realized it or not, was on the brink of anarchy.
Just when it appeared that the set was about to collapse, the boys in the band swung into the “Ballad of Sleepy John” and an up-tempo “Down in the Valley Woe” finale, reigniting their previous musical fire. Greene pitched his pick into the crowd, which roared overall approval and rose en masse like someone had pushed a communal ejection-seat button.
Backstage, Greene had a quick smoke before being swept into a rust-streaked vehicle perched on wood blocks that looked more like a bread truck than the home base of operations for a live radio broadcast. Three men with headsets and microphones chatted him up a bit (with such give and take as: “You are very young-looking.” “I don’t think about it much.”) before Greene was transported via electric cart to a table in the Tower Records tent to sign programs, CDs and whatever else fans pushed his way.
It was here that Greene’s festival popularity truly began to crystallize. More people showed up for an autograph than time allowed. One Sacramento couple said they often caught Greene performing at Harlow’s, and another at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley. A preteen boy proudly presented the soft-spoken Greene with a hand-sketched portrait that looked like some sort of strange creature brandishing a guitar. Two college girls said how exciting it was to find someone their age making such huge waves at such an institutionalized event. One burly, flannel-wearing dude referred to Greene as a one-man wrecking crew. And an attractive matron in red verbalized what many others were certainly thinking: “You are really something.” It was a compliment that Greene lived up to again a couple of hours later at the smaller Garden Stage.
By 4 p.m., blues harp master Charlie Musselwhite had finished his Garden Stage set. Buddy Guy was treating the main arena to a rendition of Willie Dixon’s “Hootchie Cootchie Man” he described as “so funky that you can smell it.” And Clint Eastwood and first lady of the ivories Marian McPartland were discussing piano jazz in the nearby Dizzy’s Den venue. Nonetheless, the Garden was filled to capacity in anticipation of Greene’s arrival.
Here, the crowd was younger than the one that filled the main arena, with entire families sharing lawn blankets, lounge chairs and benches that stretched back to several filled bleachers. Greene and company took the stage and repeated only two songs from their previous set, once again impressing the crowd with a mix of acoustic and electric tunes.
Greene ripped through such original blue-collar anthems as “About Cell Block #9” and a foot-stomping version of Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” He also embraced the sexual elements of the blues with a mating of Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying” and Muddy Waters’ “She’s 19 Years Old.” “This is a little like making love,” Greene said after unleashing scorching leads on both electric guitar and harp with the passion of a seasoned back-door man.
“What the hell does he know about love?” bellowed an African-American matron from the bleachers who thought Greene looked closer to 12 than 23. It was hard to tell if Greene heard the outburst, but just about on cue, he turned down the volume and turned up the heat on his Telecaster. “And this is called foreplay,” he purred. “Oh, honey,” the lady wailed again. “Now that’s what I’m talking about.”
Between tunes, bassist Phillips worked the crowd as emcee and public-service announcer. “When they talk about Jackie, they talk about his age. He’s 23—and he’s single” was one aside. “Turns out that Jackie Greene was born in Monterey, Calif. Is it good to be back here, or what?” was another. And he prompted the crowd to clap along on one number. Phillips also joked about his own age: “So, most of you have noticed that I’m older than the other guys. In addition to being in the band, I’m also the boys’ parole officer. So, thank the state of California for alternate sentencing.”
The band—like veteran showmen—once again left the crowd on its feet, cheering wildly and wanting more. By the time Greene returned to the Tower tent for an additional autograph party, the line was 50 people deep. One lady wanted her leather coat signed. Another pestered Greene to remove his shades so she could see his eyes; she fluffed his bangs. Greene handled all the attention with polite amazement.
Then time was up. Greene lit up a smoke and exchanged greetings with his mom, brothers, band members and management. And then he headed home with two more performances under his belt, his Sweet Somewhere Bound and Gone Wanderin’ CDs tabulated as the two hottest sellers of the entire festival, and Rusty Nails hammered in at No. 6 on the list.
Gone—but not soon forgotten.