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Published: 2007/09/27
by Dean Budnick

Jackie Greene: Phil Leshs Latest Friend Secures Permission

The phone call came one afternoon while Jackie Greene was picking through his refrigerator.

“Hello, this is Phil Lesh”

Initially the 26 year old musician thought that one of his friends was pranking him. However, Greene realized rather swiftly that it was indeed the bass player, even though he and Lesh had never met.

What followed was an afternoon of conversation at Greene’s San Francisco apartment, after which, Jackie recalls, he treated Lesh to dinner.

“I’m quite proud of that,” Greene laughs. “We went around the corner to this restaurant, the Spaghetti Shack. Although every time since then, he’s bought me dinner.”

And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship

The origins of this connection can be traced back to Bonnaroo 2006. It was there that Lesh was scheduled to perform a festival-closing set, while Greene opened Saturday’s music at The Other Tent.

In the days before the fest, Lesh was interviewed by the Nashville Scene and asked what artists he was eager to see perform to Bonnaroo. The bassist responded, “I’m excited to see Jackie Green[e]. And it turns out that Bill Frisell, whose playing I’ve admired for a long time, is playing right after Jackie in the same tent. I just heard Jackie Green[e]’s album, and it’s one of the best-produced and mixed albums I’ve ever heard. The guitar playing on it is impeccable. The way it’s orchestrated, there’s all these guitars coming in and out of the different channels, and there are three or four guitars layered in the mix; you can hear them all clearly, and all the playing is outstanding. Especially the little fills, the little details, the expressive accents that go under the verses. Just superb.”

As Greene later learned, Lesh did indeed check out his set. The performers never met at Bonnaroo because, as Greene explains, “Things were just crazy for me. I had a set with the band and then a solo set and then I was off to another set. However, someone forwarded the Nashville Scene piece to Greene, who in turn sent an email of appreciation to Lesh’s wife and manager, Jill. Greene never expected anything else to come of it and such was the case for nearly a yearuntil that moment midway through 2007 when Greene was rummaging through his fridge and answered Lesh’s call.

While Jackie Greene undoubtedly was appreciative of Lesh’s interest and support, he was not altogether cowed by it. In part this is due to the way Greene carries himself, with a certain measure of equanimity. Also worthy of note, though, is the fact that while he appreciates Lesh’s accomplishments, Greene was not a Deadhead in his youth.

Jackie experienced a relatively sheltered existence growing up in Northern California. He was raised in what he describes as “a very blue collar town,” where “there was no record store, we could barely hear any radio stations and the ones we could hear weren’t playing anything worth hearing.”

As a result, Greene’s initial engagement with music took place in an increasingly archaic setting, sitting in his basement with a record player. He recalls, “My mom and dad had a big stack of records. One day I went down and started listening. Eventually I worked my way through everything they had.”

Greene remembers quite distinctly that the first record he listened to was The Genius of Ray Charles. From there he worked his way obsessively through his parents’ collection, which gravitated towards blues, folk and soul with a slice of guitar rock as well. “There was a Grateful Dead record or two in there. They belonged to my mom,” he adds with a chuckle, “She spent some time in San Francisco.”

Still, the artists that most interested him were blues performers, both those in the acoustic porch-picking realm such as Lightening Hopkins and the full-on electric players. He soon began to explore their music in a bit more depth.

“I was the weird guy in high school always carrying around a Muddy Waters album.”

He soon began applying what he heard both to the acoustic guitar and also to the piano. While he soon distinguished himself on both instruments, in terms of his personal musical development, Greene explains, “What’s been most important to me has been my songwriting.”

After high school, he decided to make a full-on commitment to his music, not only through steady practicing and songwriting sessions, but also by gigging regularly whenever feasible. Sometimes Greene would perform seven nights a week, in a range of settings, most often as a solo acoustic artist. He soon lugged his burgeoning collection of albums to Sacramento where he began to make a name for himself in both folk and blues circles. With his self-produced Rusty Nails recording, Jackie started garnering comparisons to such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and even Van Morrison. A chance encounter with the head of the locally-based Dig Music label, landed him both a record company and management. Gone Wonderin’ and Sweet Somewhere Bound then followed and Greene began the life of a troubadour.

His career took another upturn after signing to Verve. 2006’s American Myth was produced by the Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin and also featured such high profile support as drummer Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello & The Attractions) and bassist Davey Faragher (Cracker). This, in turn, was the disc that Lesh heard and ultimately led him to contact Greene.

After their initial meeting and spaghetti dinner, Greene began traveling to Lesh’s house where, the guitarist explains, “We’d just do what musicians do. We’d teach each other songs and play them together. I lived about 40 minutes away from Phil and we did that quite a few times.”

It turned out that the two had a number of songs in common from the get go. Although Greene admits that he had limited familiarity with the Grateful Dead canon, he had picked up a few tunes along the way. “I can remember going in there sitting at the piano and playing Friend of the Devil.’ Phil listened and then showed me what I was doing wrong.”

Beyond that, Greene explains, “What I didn’t know was that Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead they were very familiar with the blues and with all forms of American music. So Phil and I knew a lot of the same songs, even if the versions were sometimes a little different.”

In the early summer of this year, Greene continued commuting to Lesh’s home, enjoying the ensuing sessions in their own right and not even considering that anything else might come of them. Then the bassist indicated that he was putting together a group for a few shows and asked Greene if he wanted to join in. Jackie assented and that’s when the graduate-level education began.

“There was just so much material. There is just so much material, “Greene offers, “but Phil was real nice about it. He allowed me to pick out the songs.”

Greene dug in with both studio and live recordings, ultimately suggesting a list of his favorites, which included “Deal,” “Bertha,” “New Speedway Boogie” and “Sugaree.”

As it turned out there was also reciprocity, as when rehearsals began for the July Phil and Friends dates, Lesh identified a number of Greene’s originals that he wanted the band to learn. That list collected a half dozen songs, such as: “When You’re Walkin’ Away, ” “Gone Wanderin’,” “Down in the Valley Woe” and “Seven Jealous Sisters.”

Greene now marvels at the company he is keeping. In addition to his high praise for the bandleader, Jackie is at a loss for words when describing all that Larry Campbell brings to bear (and to this end, let us defer to John Scofield, who in a interview this month, calls Campbell a “phenomenon,” noting, “I’ve never played with anybody that could play all those instruments. It is madness, man. He plays mandolin, banjo, guitar, pedal steel and violin and all really well.”) Greene also is particularly effusive when it comes to drummer John Molo, explaining that “I’m a rhythmic guitar player so I’m really keyed in to what he does. He’s just a great musician.”

Jackie admits that early on in the rehearsal process, he experienced some problems with the amount of musical freedom that comes with the gig. However, “Phil saw me struggling with this and gave me one piece of advice that took care of everything. He told me I needed to give myself permission to do it.” And in that moment, which Greene likens to turning on a switch, he finally surrendered to the music.

Still, Greene’s first performance with the group yet loomed and that’s when Jill Lesh offered a sage suggestion of her own.

“She told me not to read the message boards. That’s another thing that perhaps I didn’t realize right away, just the sense that this music is just so important and really sacred to so many people.”

That and the world has its share of picky Deadheads. Most of them, however, seem to be quite supportive of Greene’s initial contributions. In particular, he has earned plaudits for his vocals as well as the compositions that he has come to contribute. Clearly Lesh shares this sentiment, enlisting Greene to join him on the first Phil & Friends tour in over a year, with thirty dates on tap including 10 nights at the Nokia Theater Times Square.

One major difference from the July gigs is that Barry Sless will not be with the group. The absence of the pedal steel will leave a bit more room for Jackie to contribute on guitar. He is somewhat reticent to talk about this opportunity, in part out of his deference to Campbell’s talents but he explains, “When the time is right, I’ll get a little crazy.”

As for what else is to come, Greene explains that the group has been working up a number of additional songs. Some of these are his own, as ”Supersede” closed out the first set at the Greek Theatre Sunday, while “Mexican Girl” appeared early in set two. In addition, Greene has continued thumbing through the Grateful Dead songbook, with many selection yet to come (he identified “Brokedown Palace” as something he had pushed the band to play, which it did as an encore at the Santa Barbara Bowl on September 22).

Beyond that, Greene is particularly excited about the acoustic sets. “What’s going to happen is at any show, at any time, Phil might just call it out and then we’ll play an acoustic set. He’s already said that there’s going to be one at Red Rocks but I’m really looking forward to see what else comes of it."

"Actually," he adds, "I’m really looking forward to seeing what else comes of everything.”

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