Happy New Year, y’all! Nothing like ringing in a new one surrounded by friends and listening to one of your favorite musicians. Nothing. But before we get to that night, there was the evening before. A quiet acoustic show inside the Grate Room at Terrapin Crossroads, Phil Lesh’s place in San Rafael. I’ve seen many shows inside the Grate Room, but this was my first time in with my gear. I’ve still got vivid memories of the first time I stepped inside…. I remember the line of folks in front of me turning in their pretty tickets – now they just put your name on a list, no physical tickets – walking around the curtain past security, and their faces would light up. It was my turn. I walked past that curtain and was thrilled at how small the space was! And then it was my face that lit up! I turned back around to security and told them they should set up a camera to capture the expressions as people walked in for the first time. You know, like they have on some of the amusement park roller coaster rides. Then, at the end of the show we can see a board with our picture on it, all surprised and gleeful! Needless to say, they didn’t go for it…
We arrived at Terrapin a little more than an hour and a half before showtime, just enough to head into the restaurant/bar area to grab a bite and a beer, as well as listen to some pre-show live music. This evening, the tunes were provided by Rattlebox, featuring original music by Lorin Rowan on guitar and vocals, along with Barry Sless on pedal steel (who ironically had just played a few weeks before with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood at the Fillmore, another show JBO has just featured) and Dough Harmon on cello. (Sidebar: Just something cool about Terrapin Crossroads is that they offer quite a bit of free live music in the restaurant performed by quite a plethora of incredibly talented Bay Area musicians. And, well, there’s always the excitement of wondering if Mr. Lesh will show up, which he quite often does. Oh, and if you ever have a chance to linger, mosey about the restaurant and feast your eyes on a bunch of really great photos of the boys over the years, and then head up the stairs and check out a bunch of Grateful Dead memorabilia along with artwork, games, books, etc. all harkening back to the day.) We bellied up to the bar, grabed a few appetizers and beers, chatted up a few patrons and enjoyed the free tunes before settling in for the night inside the main concert area.
This was billed as an acoustic sit-down show, which doesn’t happen that often inside the Grate Room. So, who are the Skinny Singers, you ask? Just two skinny guys that’s who. Best buds Tim Bluhm, otherwise known as the lead singer and guitar player for the Bay Area’s The Mother Hips, and that dude Jackie Greene from his own band and also often member of Phil Lesh and Friends, Trigger Hippy, and even The Black Crowes there for the Lay Down with Number 13 tour. These fellas have known each other for more than two handfuls, and they put out one album under the name Skinny Singers back in 2007 called, The Skinny Singers Strike Again! The cover features the two in blue super hero outfits. Yup. Imagine that, two grown fellas running around San Francisco wearing masks, blue spandex, yellow bottoms, and white capes. Must’ve been some sight. The album consists of 10 songs written and performed by the two friends, songs that often appear in both of their live sets. (Sidebar: Jackie did mention they were working on a new release, which I for one am looking forward to as I enjoyed that first one so very much.) It was such a relaxed evening, just the two of them up on stage, kicking back and telling stories and laughing it up. Their set consisted of 16 songs, the majority of which came from that 2007 release, and the remaining were sprinkles of cover tunes from The Mother Hips and Tim’s solo work, The Grateful Dead, Willis Alan Ramsey, and good ‘ole Merle Haggard. There’s just something about this acoustic stuff: the way that Jackie’s acoustic blends with Tim’s electric creates a beautiful harmony like no other.
Opening the evening with “Where the Rain Don’t Go,” a soft little ballad filled with the sweet harmonies of a last goodbye… That’s pretty much how the whole night went – warm acoustic and electric guitars supporting two voices that seem to go together like peanut butter and honey: sweet and filling. There were songs that made ya laugh, like “Baby’s Got a Mustache” with lyrics like, “She’s got more hair on her lip than I do on my head!”; there were blues numbers like, “Nothing Comes from Nothing,” “Dirty Pharmacy,” and “Working Man’s Blues”; some groovy fun ones like, “Going Home Again” (“ya can’t run into trouble if you’re always out runnin’ around”) and “Heroes Hear Me”; ballads that tugged at your emotions like “Singing My Way to the Grave” (“Mama, I know you’ll be sad. Just know when I die, I’ll be lifting up the sky. Oh Mama, I know you’ll be sad…..” gosh, that line just kills me every time.), “Spider Legs,” and a seemingly new one (Tim quipped that Jackie had just learned it) “Yours on Me, Mine on You” (“…lips to kiss my whole life through. Yours on me and mine on you….”); a few covers with “Stoned Up the Road” from Tim’s band, The Mother Hips, and “Scarlet Begonias,” a favorite Grateful Dead tune; and even time for stories, like how they first met and came up with the idea for the cover of their album (Jackie confirmed they actually did it, saying it “was not photoshopped”). There was a sense of family and friends at this intimate show, and not just on stage either. The Skinny Singers shows are few and far between, so if you see them set for a venue that you can get to, well, get to it!
The very next night, a lot of the same folks headed out to the Crest Theatre in Sacramento to catch Jackie’s full band ring in the New Year in front of a packed house of happy Greene Heads. Mainly used as a movie theatre, the place was first opened in 1912 as The Empress Theatre, then renamed as The Hippodrome, before reopening as The Crest Theatre in 1949, and maintains that art deco style inside and out. Oh, and many didn’t know (myself included until someone mentioned it) that there is a full bar and restaurant downstairs too, called The Empress Tavern, all bricked out in arches and ceiling and walls. It felt like another world down there. Hum, maybe they should try out some small acoustic shows down there. I bet the sound would be killer.
The evening began with a sweet set by Jackie’s younger brother, Alexander Nelson, playing the majority of his own songs written for his band, Walking Spanish. Go check him/them out if you can. Alex is a songwriter in his own, talented singer and guitar player, and as I learned that night, he can also hang out on the keyboards.
The Jackie Greene Band filled their sets with a blend of songs from his new release, Back to Birth, sprinkled with a bunch of his older releases and a surprise one here and there. Only one cover tune appeared on the set list the whole night, opening second set with “Shakedown Street” by the good ‘ole Grateful Dead. Pretty fitting for ringing in the New Year.
Now, one other thing about this theatre. It is a movie theatre for a majority of its time. The seats are built in, stuck to the floor. Actually, I’m pretty sure they are bolted to it. Some folks were heard worrying if people would get up and dance. We like to dance. His music makes you want to dance. I’m sure it gets the band a little more riled up when they see the crowd up on their feet enjoying it all. I know Greene does; I’ve heard him draw folks out of their seats before, let them know it’s OK to have fun. So, most folks were sitting for the first tune, “Don’t Let the Devil Take Your Mind,” which is not a song that should be sat through. I was up at the front of the stage taking a shot or two, and the floor was empty. As I’m walking up the side isle to get a different shot, I hear Jackie say, “What’s up you guys? Happy New Year! Now you know, you don’t have to just sit there the whole night. Y’all can all stand up and have fun.” There it is, folks: a simple statement that generates action from the crowd. Next thing ya know, I look over my shoulder, and slowly but surely, people have gotten out of their seats and are up against the stage, dancing and having a time. Yay! But crap – there goes my spot! I run and grab some space to be sure I have a good angle for more images, and that’s where I stayed most of the evening. Even when it got nuts, which it did, especially at set break when security came along and tried to make everyone go back to their seats because, “The Crest is a seated venue.” Huh? Sit? OK, OK, I can see if it was over packed and dangerous, but it wasn’t. There was about 1/10th of the crowd who had decided to make good use of the dance floor, the majority just up and dancing in their seats. They’d look at me with my special sticker and camera and tell me I can stay and then turn to the person next to me and say they had to go back to their assigned seat. I decided to walk away to try to ease the “If she can stay, then I’m staying” sort of response, but to no avail. People just decided they were gonna stay put and dance. The Theatre staff even threatened to delay the countdown if folks didn’t get back to their seats! There was more than a little tension there for a while, but the venue finally just gave up, and the show went on; and, there was no issue, no drinks spilled and no one got hurt. I must say, Mr. Greene and his folks handled the situation quite well and didn’t let it stop the fun. And, this band, this band. They sure know how to provide a rockin’ good time. I mean, c’mon, a 17 minute “Shakedown” jam??? C’mon!! So danceable man, so danceable (I mean, it was one of the ’70s dance tunes the Dead put out). I dunno what would have happened if everyone had to sit. I think the seats would’ve rocked so hard that the bolts holding ’em down would have come clean out!
Let’s start out with my favorite newbies, those that have begun to make their way under my skin and into my musical soul. There’s “Silver Lining,” a slow blues number that tugs at emotions and conjures up visions of lonliness, even while standing in a crowd (“….where’s my silver lining, that I been dying, dying to see. Every day I’m finding, that silver lining is inside of me….”) It’s got that smooth and stretchy slide and comfortably easy beat. Plus, it’s got that slide guitar that I love so much that just stretches your feelings out a bit bigger, a bit wider, until you can let them go. Then the lively, tap your toes song that stays with you for days “Light Up Your Window” (“…And when the rhythm of the freight train running, meets the song of the jet plane humming. Light up your window baby, I’ll be coming home, so we can be alone….”) Gosh, I really like this song. It’s changed a hair since it was first introduced, and I dig it. It’s one of those tunes that sticks in your head: the lyrics are there days later and the beat is just as strong as it was when you were standing in front of the stage. An emotional “Trust Somebody,” a song I’ve heard many call their new favorite, a song that has incredible meaning to it for some. Jackie writing it and putting it out there at the right time is how we instantly connect to music and the musician behind it. I get it. It’s a beautiful tune; Jackie on the piano with the band softly supporting him, Nathan just touching and pulling those guitar strings at exactly the right moment in exactly the right way. And, I look over to my right to see something that usually takes me away – someone just getting into it, just singing along, feeling every word, every note, taking it all into their soul. It’s quite a sight to be near, to see, to feel. I can’t help but stare and smile (and it’s perfectly fine because I know and love this friend). Jackie just writes the right words, ya know? “…How would you know that you’re alive, until you died a thousand times. ‘Cause even fools like me are wise enough to say, you will have everything when you give everything away. And now I’m outta of my mind, broken and blind. To turn it around I gotta trust somebody. I look at myself I don’t like what I see. I want something else, so I can trust somebody. I ain’t no one but a stranger to you, but I can show you what love can do….” My last mention fav is, “Hallelujah,” which isn’t that new as I first heard it in 2011 or maybe 2012, at the Crystal Bay Club in Lake Tahoe. It really is just warm and soulful, musically and lyrically. Whether on purpose or not, or just a part of the recording I’m listening to, but there was this beautiful echo after Jackie’s voice that just made that song carry just a little bit further, a little bit higher (“…. and you will sing, with everything, hallelujah…”). Then it starts, the tempo gets a bit quicker, the music a bit louder and the crowd a bit more upbeat. Jackie starts picking it up and wailing on those keys, encouraging the place to clap along. With an even bigger hit, in comes Nathan who just leads all of us strutting down the isles, with Jackie on the organ, bringing up the rear.
Now the newbies that haven’t gotten under my skin yet but will likely grow on me as the others have. “Now I Can See for Miles” (which, admittedly, I was already singing all day in my head, at the doctor, at the grocery store, in the car…..) seems like possibly a song about that moment when things become clear to you, after years of looking and watching and listening and not really seeing the forest for the trees. It sometimes just takes one thing to change you, one person to suddenly clear the fog and suddenly life becomes bright and life has more meaning than it had before. It’s got a quick beat, big rhythm and a space to allow Jackie to make his guitar sing. Then there is, “Back to the Bottom,” is found in his book, Gone Wanderin’ The Songs of Jackie Greene 2001 – 2011, but I don’t have it on any album, and it’s not one I’ve heard live before 2015. It’s a heavier rock and roll number, very guitar and bass driven, with space for those extended loud and big rippin’ jams with lyrics that fit: “I’m no healer (no doubt abut it). But I know how to ease the pain. All the junkies they heard about it, come to call on me by name. Oh, I know that it don’t seem right. But there’s no God in the City of Night. She goes back, back, back to the bottom. She goes back, where she’s nobody’s problem…,” and it ends on this guitar lick that, well, seems to be saying something that might be a little too honest for some ears. This other new one called “The King is Dead,” which is on Back to Birth and feels lyrically like a little odd cross between “Animal,” “Don t Let The Devil Take Your Mind,” “Downhearted,” “Ghosts of Promised Land,” and “Gridstone,” all mixed together with backing music that is almost a little lighter than the aforementioned. Definitely sans the attitude of “Animal.”
Now for my favorite oldies, cuz we all have those. The tunes written years ago and played a ton over the years, but I don’t care: he can play ’em every show, and I’d be happy. There’s “Uphill Mountain.” This song just has a lot of meaning for me. It reminds me of my mom and how tough her life was. Not just the battle she lost to cancer, but the daily struggles of raising five girls on her own. She had a strength I didn’t really appreciate until later in life. She had her faith and took what life gave her, and she showed us how to stand tall. And, well, Jackie plays the acoustic guitar and harmonica so….. And, who doesn’t love some “Gone Wanderin’?” Who? No one! Cuz ya can’t help but to just throw down your boogie for this one! Well, and again, Jackie plays the acoustic guitar and harmonica and pretty darn fast for this one. Just a boot stompin hay-tossin tune. (Hey!) Placed neatly in between two newer ones was “Shaken,” a song that will now forever remind me of a friend in Colorado who had come out for Jackie’s string of shows at The Sweetwater in Mill Vally last April (you know who you are!). My always and forever favorite spot of this tune is towards the end, “…Sombody pointed out to me. Because I want one more chance to believe. I want to run, go stare into the sun. Watch the bay waves breakin’, the human race awaken. I, I want to know why I am so uncertain, Behind the curtain, shaken….” Yeah, love this song. I wouldn’t get another one of my favorite oldies until nearly the end of the second set. Wait, I take that back, because they did play, “Georgia” and who doesn’t love a song about someone who says they gonna rock your world? (heehee) I always know when Jackie moves over to the piano there are just a certain handful of songs that might get played. I’m always happy to hear “So Hard to Find My Way,” even if it’s still missing one character. And I didn’t say nuthin either, cuz I promised. It’s just so darn light and danceable and musically happy for my body. Then, of course, it has a blast on the harmonica so…. I think one of my all time favorite Jackie Greene songs will continue to be, “Till The Light Comes.” This song has so much energy that you can’t help but to, well, swing wide and then swing low. (“…. swing wide, Mama, swing low. Come and love me, babe, before I have to go….”) There is no way I can possibly sit still for this one… Until the soulful part, which slows me down but not to a sit. It’s the part when the guitars just sing, and the harmonies give you goose bumps. The music can literally feel like it is washing over you, gently brushing your hair, encouraging your heart to softly beat and warm you from the inside out. Even listening to a live recording (thank you, thank you tapers!), I’m transported back in time, and out come the goosebumps just as Jackie starts on that slide. Oh man, what is it about the slide guitar – does it to me every time.
The night would end on a hearty “Medicine” followed by a lively “Like a Ball and Chain” encore. Lively. Ha. What? That is no way to describe it! Dance blues? Blues Rock? There’s almost a little strut inside the groove, could be something you might catch inside of a Stones tune. Well, and hey, you know, any tune that brings Nathan and Jackie center stage, facing each other guitar to guitar, exchanging lick for lick, and just egging each other higher and higher; well, that’s rock and roll.
I have to say, listening to the live recording again (one more “Thank You!” to the awesome tapers), there was a strength to the music, a firm confidence in what was going on, a jelling of a sort of all musicians on stage that was…. I don’t know if I’m explaining it right. I’ve seen this band play quite a number of live shows over the years, especially since 2011. I’ve seen the members change more than once. (Sidebar: Welcome Jon Cornell on bass since November 2015.) Maybe it was just the night, you know, New Year’s Eve and the excitement it brings, the expectation that, well, it’s time to celebrate the coming year, and folks just want to ring in a new one on a high note. The music did that: the band was on it, the rhythm was strong, the vocals were tight, and well, that special fire between Jackie and Nathan was hot. Hot baby. Hot. Oh, and Jackie’s voice? Sweeter than ever.
Where The Rain Don’t Go, Nothing Comes From Nothing, Spider Legs, Dirty Pharmacy, Going Home Again, Singing My Way To The Grave, Heroes Hear Me, Yours On Me, Mine On You, Stoned Up The Road*, Baby’s Got A Mustache*, Ballad of Spider John, Workingman’s Blues, Infinity Blues, Squeaky Wheel, Scarlet Begonias
Encore: Silver Key
* Tim electric guitar, Jackie keys
Set 1: Don’t Let the Devil Take Your Mind, I’m So Gone, Silver Lining, Spooky Tina, Light Up Your Window, Uphill Mountain, Gone Wanderin’, Now I Can See For Miles, Shaken, Trust Somebody
NYE Count Down with Jay Blakesberg
Shakedown Street> Another Brick in the Wall> Shakedown Street, Back to the Bottom, Georgia, The King is Dead, So Hard to Find My Way, Hallelujah, Till the Light Comes, Medicine
Encore: Like a Ball and Chain