Who doesn’t love it when one of their favorite musicians comes to play in their hometown, their backyard… or just like it. The Golden State Theatre in downtown Monterey has been hosting some great shows of late, and on March 19, it was the Jackie Greene Band. Woo hoo! In my backyard! OK, not technically, but for music fans who tend to have to leave the area and drive a few hours for the bigger acts/more well known shows, the entire Monterey Bay area is our backyard. Jackie has played the area where he was born a handful of times since 2011 (Henry Miller Memorial Library, West End Celebration, Monterey Bay Blues Fest…), noting more than once that he was born in Salinas. And, this was not his first time at the Golden State Theatre – he and Bob Weir set out on the road together in late 2012 and ended their acoustic tour on stage at the GST. Man, that was some night…. But, I digress.
So, the venue, the Golden State Theatre. The doors have been open and closed on and off throughout the past decade. It has struggled to stay afloat, to stay relevant. In most recent years, new owners have come in and have really tried to keep the acts varied, from concerts like this to musicals like “Clifford the Big Red Dog” which is playing late in the month. This space has some solid history in the area which is why so many have lent a hand to keep it going. Dating back to the early 1900s, it was at first an opulent palace for movies and live performances. Originally with 1,600 plush velvet seats (that rock folks, literally as a rocking chair), it was the largest movie palace between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Acquired by United Artists Theaters in the late 60s, it was split into a three-screen multiplex. However, like many other movie palaces, this space fell on hard times throughout the 70s. At some point in the 1990s, a major renovation/restoration took place which included returning the theatre back to a single auditorium and the seating reduced to 1,300. It was then leased to a local church for some years gaining its nickname, “The Church.” They even replaced the aging Wurlitzer pipe organ with what is said to be it’s “twin” from the original palace dating back to the 1920s. (I wonder if Mr. Greene knew that and got his hands dirty with it.) Its sustainability near and dear to the area, The City of Monterey even looked into a public-private partnership with the owner at the time. Now under new private investors, the doors have remained open and functioning since 2014.
For slightly more than a handful of shows on this tour, Jackie Greene has invited Skin & Bones, an acoustically based guitar-fiddle duo to open the night. Hailing from Moorpark California, they are Taylor Borsuk on guitar, vocals and kick (or Suitcase) drum and Peter Blackwelder on violin, which at times he had sounding like an electric guitar. Their sound is a blend of folk/blues with dashes of bluegrass and a little alternative country. Playing for nearly 45 minutes, their set consisted of songs that hit your soul and others that got your feet itching to move. From the first note of their opening tune, “Someday Soon,” I believe I and the audience were hooked. I’m pretty sure you could hear a pin drop inside the theatre if someone dropped one. Attentively hanging on every note, the crowd ate it up. I was trying to put my finger on who or what other band they reminded me of…. Taylor’s voice is deep and gritty, a little in the realm of the lead singer for Mumford & Sons. The simplicity of their set up, and that’s not to say it is simple, because it isn’t, it’s just stripped down, raw, open, connective… I really dug it. They’ve got three releases out there, Skin & Bones (2013), Someday Soon (also 2013), and their newest, Ghost In This Town (2016), so there is plenty of music to get your hands on. It’s soulful, it’s melodic, deeply gritty, deeply south, uniquely dark and definitely full of passion. “Ghost in This Town,” their title track from their most recent release, was haunting
I also connected to, “Soul Song,” which was not found on any release. It was a little more upbeat and had a sweet guitar riff that was repeated throughout, almost making it feel like it had a bit of a Motown side of soul influence. Their second to last song was filled with gritty blues, the foot stompin’ kind. Taylor had a kick-drum set up behind him that just gave it that extra oomph, not that it needed it. He also had a tambourine set up somewhere convenient to his feet adding an extra piece of rhythm to their stripped down sound, especially that last one, “Bad Feeling.” I found their first two albums available for listen on their Facebook page, and some of the tracks, including “Bad Feeling,” on Soundcloud (which sounds more like a full band tracks filled into this recording, over the duo, which really gives it extra punch and power). Go treat your ears to some gritty, stripped down, raw kind of blues. The blues all skin and bones.
After about a half hour break, Jackie Greene Band hit the stage, opening their 1:45 long set with, “I Don’t Live in a Dream,” a slow groove opener to warm up the atmosphere before laying down two heavier blues rock tunes with, “I’m So Gone” and “Medicine” from Giving Up the Ghost (2008) American Myth (2006) and ‘Till the Light Comes (2010) respectively. Greene had released eight studio records since 2001, but nothing new since 2010. Fans, and I’m one of ’em, waited five very long years for the latest studio release with Back to Birth out in 2015. Funny, that’s the name of a Buddy Guy song Greene has often played, “Five Long Years,” ironically last covered in 2015, the year the latest release came out. Huh. Inside joke? Eh, probably not.
The evening’s setlist would feature four songs from his new release, Back to Birth: “Silver Lining” a melancholy song about seeking out that golden nugget, that bucket at the end of the rainbow, that silver lining amongst all of the dark clouds and rain storms of life; Jackie takes on the slide for this one, just sitting on those strings and getting his gooeyness all out. “Light Up Your Window,” a quicker beat and oh so danceable song that will leave you singing for days and days after, with it’s catchy chorus, “And like 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…..” You could really follow and feel the bass line, it was dancing and grooving and leading along the crowd the same. “Now I Can See for Miles,” played for the first time and most recently at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley (first in April 2015 and again on March 24, 2016 during his week-long residency), and then “Hallelujah” which I will touch on more in a minute. One that will grow on me, the lyrics for “Now I Can See for Miles” seem to tell a tale of years of your vision of life clouded by the world, but that one person you meet impacts the way you see everything and suddenly, life has meaning, the clouds have been lifted and it is all clear. There is a groove to this song that seems to match the groove of life, the verses having more of a staccato feel and the chorus is as smooth as new ice on a pond in the middle of paradise, where no skates are able to scratch it.
But let me tell you this: “Animal” was rough and dirty in that rock and roll way, with lyrics as heavy as the bass line driving. And, I’ve never heard them open it up like this; the guitars taking a step back to let the rhythm section, consisting of Fitz Harris on drums and Jon Cornell on bass, take it to a little funky space before that insane guitar shredding started between Nathan Dale and Jackie Greene. Its a moment that allows Greene to exchange his acoustic for electric, leading to what you know is coming. You can feel it building. You see it happen. They turn and walk towards each other, meeting somewhere in the middle of serious heavy exchanges, each daring each other to take it to another level of madness. Released in 2008 (Giving Up the Ghost), Greene says, “This song began as a rant. A hurried, upset scribbling on binder paper. I initially intended the song to be much faster, but it’s shape became apparent once I started working on the music…” (An excerpt from his lyric book, Gone Wanderin’ The Songs of Jackie Greene 2001 – 2011) I find it fitting it was released in a presidential election year, and eight years later, nothing has changed. “These times are desperate times. We’re spotted and surrounded, the hounds and vultures lean and unforgiving. We walk upon two legs as men, we burn it down, just to build again. We will not make a change to how we’re living. But I believe a change will come for us and those who demand it; for those who can’t stand it, living wild in the gutter. And on that day the sun will burn like golden hammer, and we will understand and learn how to live with each other.” I can say that this just may have been my favorite of the night.
Heading over to the keys for a few songs, Jackie stayed at the Kawai MP6 synthesizer and occasionally twinkled the ivories of the organ through “Shaken,” “So Hard to Find My Way,” and “Hallelujah” the last which also appears on Back to Birth, although it’s gotten some stage time since heard the first time in December 2011 at the Crystal Bay Casino. With Greene working over the keys for three, Nathan stands alone as the guitar god. It may not be a guitar-driven tune, but you can hear him in there, filling the spaces, swirling around in the atmosphere, keeping you fully engaged in his talent. I figure there are two ways we hear Nathan – loud and clear or soft and subtle. I love it either way, but there is something ambient or ethereal about hearing how he decides to use his strings softly. This is not to take away from Mr. Greene’s talent on the keys, cuz he sure works ’em, arms twisted around each other reaching for the sound, or playing the harmonica with one hand while hitting the ivories with the other – it looks like he’s playing a solo game of Twister sometimes! Before I move on, however, just one more comment on “Hallelujah” This starts out very quiet, just Jackie on the Kawai all by himself, singing about running from truth, loosing your cunning, finding your way out of something, facing your past and dealing with what it may have done to your present or future. Metaphorically, this song may be about growth and discovery and the feeling of solace you might get from being able to move forward after drifting for so long. From somber to celebration, this song ends on a high note as you feel the energy build from the stage to what feels like a strut down the streets of New Orleans as you bid adieu to your troubles. Yes sir, and the crowd exploded! (Sidebar: Throughout the evening and during “Hallelujah” I often moved from left stage to right via the lobby, doing my best to respect those down in front – I mean seated right in front of the stage by just a few feet. Heading through the lobby during this one, I overhear a man joyous over the lack of line at the bar, exclaiming, “Wow, the line is finally short at the bar!” and the man next to him jokes, “Hallelujah” Ba-dum-chhhhhh Perfect timing dude.)
Suddenly, there is a jazzy interlude. Call it a snappy jam or maybe a funky freeform filler. Whatever you name it, the setlist called it, “Snoop G Jam.” I’m not sure I’ve heard this played exactly like this, but a few years back they would often do what they referred to as, “Jeremy’s Jam” when the then bass player, Jeremy Plog, would take on the lead guitar having Nathan join the rhythm section on bass as Jackie laid it down on the keys. Super swampy and deeply rhythmic, this five or six minute jam, if allowed to continue on the setlist, will likely expand deeper into the southern funkadelic jazz it feels based on.
After enjoying some time up in the balcony for a different view, I must head back down to the floor as they start in with, “Fire on the Mountain,” and Jackie invites his brother Alex Nelson to join them on stage at the keys. I head downstairs and happen upon a little dance party going on in the lobby, just like back in the day when there would be so many people boogieing out in the hallways at many ‘o Grateful Dead show. I think it was pretty wise for the GD crew to set up speakers in the halls, almost ingenious. Seeing it, walking through it, brought a little joy to my soul. I swing open the doors to the main floor and, well, it seemed as though the security, who was adamant about people not dancing in their seats, had just let it go. Now, they didn’t say you couldn’t dance, just not at your seat. If you wanted to dance, you had to move to the left or right side of the Theatre as to not block the view of those sitting behind you. I was actually quite surprised that the crowd held out for this long….. Well then, let the dance party begin! Yay! I for one love to boogie and it felt a little wrong that I was free to do so while so many others felt they couldn’t or shouldn’t. Well, the plush velvet seats did rock back and forth, so I suppose that helped the chair boogie happen. And, there is something about the way that the Jackie Greene Band interprets the Grateful Dead. Maybe it’s their time spent with Phil or Bobby; or maybe its a general appreciation for the music; or maybe they all have a little Deadhead inside of ’em. They don’t try to redo it the way Jerry and the boys would have, not at all. They do it in their way; a little louder, a little more rock and roll, and with just as much fervor for the original as those who penned it. Before the night would end, they’d toss in another too, with a “Sugaree” encore. It’s like having cake and eating it too. It’s like saying, “pretty please with sugar on top,” just that much more sweet in the end.
In between the Grateful Dead sandwich was one of my favorite high-energy danceable tunes Jackie has, “Till the Light Comes,” and I was glad to have the whole place up and boogieing along with me – cuz man, if they hadn’t, I probably would have looked like one of those crazy people dancing around with abandon as everyone sat and stared at me…. and I wouldn’t have cared either. What’s that saying? Dance like no one’s watching. Yup. Or, maybe it should be, dance like you don’t care people are watching. Either way, from “Fire” though the last note of “Sugaree” the audience was on its feet, dancing like no one was watching because they weren’t really, as all eyes and souls were affixed to the stage.
I think, for me, there is something I relate to in each one of Jackie’s songs. I truly feel good when I hear it, whether it is a lyric or a guitar lick, there isn’t a Jackie Greene song I don’t like. And, with so many in his pocket, or should I say pockets cuz it would be some weird pants with only one pocket, especially for someone who loves and appreciates pockets… am I talking about pockets for too long??? Either way, this musician-fan relationship thing could go on for a long time. I’m OK with it.
Jackie Greene Band
Golden State Theater, Monterey
March 19, 2016
Set List: I Don’t Live in a Dream, I’m So Gone, Medicine, Silver Lining, Uphill Mountain, Light Up Your Window, Animal, Shaken, So Hard to Find My Way, Hallelujah, Snoop G Jam, Now I Can See For Miles, Fire on the Mountain, ‘Till the Light Comes Encore: Sugaree