by Dennis Strazulo
We caught up with singer-songwriter and local favorite, Jackie Greene, on the last day of his 4 day/5 show run at Sweetwater Music Hall in December. Given this was his fifth such stint at Sweetwater since it moved locations a decade ago, and because we love to explore artists through a provincial lens, our chat naturally went down the road of rummaging through Jackie’s experiences and history in and around Marin County, leading to his familiar residency at the legendary nightclub. The journey has been a long one, with twists of fate and instinct paving the way to a place he likened to his second home.
After catching notoriety playing at Marilyn’s, a basement-esque bar and music venue in hometown Sacramento, Greene got his first taste of Marin in 2002 opening as a budding 22-year old solo act for larger bands at West Marin’s Rancho Nicasio. While he no doubt impressed patrons with his Bob Dylan, Tom Waites, Ray Charles influenced sound and song writing prowess, he couldn’t have imagined where the draw of the County was destined to take him. Hard work, creative song writing and a bundle of musical talent showcasing his soulful vocals backed by his starry guitar, piano and harmonica playing, led to his original music and debut album (Gone Wanderin’) getting air play on San Francisco’s then-kingpin rock station KFOG. Next came gigs at popular venues in San Francisco, such as Slim’s, playing at The Fillmore for the first time opening for Susan Tedeschi (who he called “super rad”) or “wherever people would have me”, and then appearances across the Bay at the original Sweetwater location where he opened for Huey Lewis in 2003. Greene admits he had no idea about the legendary history of that venue (even though many of his influences also graced its tiny stage) until he saw photos of music legends covering the walls. He playfully recalled innocent thoughts like, “Oh, that guy in the picture is a Greg Allman look-alike.” He has fond memories of getting to know Lewis, who was “so cool, he’d stop by Marilyn’s and blow out his blues harp on stage with me after performing in front of 14,000 people at Raley’s Field in Sacramento. “You should’ve seen the ladies rush the stage”, said Greene with a big laugh.
It was in 2006 while Greene was plugging along, touring and making his music, including the release of his fourth album, American Myth, when the universe intervened and he received a virtual tap on the shoulder altering the course of his career. Now a rising success in his own right, Greene and his band were performing at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee. Headliners at the festival included Radiohead, Tom Petty, Beck, and Phil Lesh and Friends. Rumor had it that original Grateful Dead member and bassist, Phil Lesh, had heard the American Myth record on the radio (KFOG, no doubt) and was planning to seek out Greene at Bonnaroo. In fact, there was a buzz around Greene’s set at one of the festival side stages and, as Greene recalls it, “people were saying hey, Phil’s coming around to see this kid Jackie play.” What was Greene’s reaction? “Who’s Phil?” Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead, he was told. “Oh, crap…is he the drummer?,” Greene recalled thinking, perhaps only half-kidding. The one thing Greene did know is he “had to rock the set.” And he did, but the whole time looking around at different people wondering to himself, “is that Phil, is that Phil?” As it turned out, Greene never met Lesh at Bonnaroo but only heard the rumors again: “Phil loved you!”
Fast forward a few months later. Greene and Tim Bluhm of The Mother Hips had a music studio together in San Francisco’s Mission District, where Greene was also living in what he called “an extended janitor closet.” He answered a phone call which Greene described in his best baritone voice: Jackie? “Yes,” he replied. This is Phil Lesh. “Oh, hey Phil, sorry we couldn’t say hi at Bonnaroo,” Jackie recalls casually saying to Lesh. Equally nonchalantly, Lesh asked Greene if he could come to The Plant Recording Studio in Sausalito, saying he was working on a song for a TV show and wanted him to bring some demos. Greene complied and showed up at The Plant. Suddenly, drummer John Molo (Bruce Hornsby and The Range, Moonalice) walked into the studio. Multi-string instrumentalist Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Levon Helm) walked in next. Greene’s first thought, which he may or may not have said out loud, was “hey, I remember you from Dylan’s band!” Next to arrive was keyboardist Steve Molitz (Particle). The current cast of Phil Lesh & Friends had entered the building! “The next thing you know, we’re playing Truckin’ or Scarlet Begonias or some other iconic Grateful Dead Song, and then Friend of the Devil,” Greene rapidly recounted. “And the next thing you know I was on tour!” The TV show – ironically about an aging rock band that was looking for new material – never materialized; but Greene was now officially one of Phil’s “Friends.”
Of course, first there was the matter of rehearsing with the band for about two weeks before hitting the road. Greene recalls driving across the bridge to Phil’s place in Marin every day, “like I was going to work.” Prior to these events, Greene was familiar with the Grateful Dead and knew a few of their songs. He liked the songs he knew but hadn’t given it much thought beyond that. He was 14 when Jerry Garcia died, so never saw him perform. It’s Greene’s theory that “Phil thought it would be good to bring in someone who didn’t know what Jerry did in 1975 or in 1987 and was looking for something fresh.” Lesh presented Greene with plenty of data to learn from, including mounds of CD’s from Grateful Dead shows. Lesh asked him to tell him what he liked. From a songwriting perspective, Greene went deep, “as if I were taking a master class.” As he started delving into the Dead’s catalogue he soon realized “none of it was Greek to me. It was Blues, R&B, Country…everything I liked.” Even so, he was surprised before a gig one night early in the tour when Lesh asked him to sing the beloved Dead tune, Sugaree. Greene told Lesh “but I haven’t heard that song yet,” to which Lesh replied, “you’ll be great.” “For whatever reason,” Greene mused, “Phil had faith in me. He felt a spirit and let me do my thing. In my mind, it comes back to instinct. That’s how you have success playing with all these different people. It’s musical instinct.”
While Greene successfully continued his own career of writing and performing original music after joining his first run with Phil & Friends, he also engrained himself in the Grateful Dead and like-kind music scene, including multiple collaborations with Dead & Co.’s Bob Weir. It’s been a rewarding path all around. Asked what direction he thinks his career might have taken if not tapped on the shoulder by Lesh, then later being supported by Weir – he says they essentially “vouched for me” within the Marin music scene – Greene reflected that he doesn’t much care to know. “All you can do is move forward,” he said. Plus, he was coming into the music industry at a time when the industry he once knew was gone, referring to Napster and the absolute shift the music business endured thereafter. “All those things I saw in the 90’s weren’t there anymore. So, the universe says, you meet this cast of characters and now you can work in music for the rest of your life…and that’s just fine!”
As for his return to Marin at Sweetwater, Greene kept coming back to describing the whole experience as “homey.” While the venue is obviously much nicer now – “it’s not as wonky, the stage doesn’t creek, and the sound is great, all of that is the icing on the cake – it’s really just the vibe that makes Sweetwater so homey,” he said. “I think the culture of the great musicians in the area rubs off on the community, who are the audience. Coming off the road you might have been playing loud shows at auditoriums with lots of pressure or be playing in a same-set band. At Sweetwater people are cool about allowing you to stretch out. You can work on your stuff, if that’s what you need to do. It’s a community of artists and of people who understand and will let you hold court. It’s the culture of the community emulating the culture of the musicians in the area, if that makes sense.”
It does make sense. Somewhat representative of his journey through Marin, 15 years after the magical ride began, Greene performed Sugaree as the encore at Sweetwater the night before we met. He was great!