For six nights, that first block of Corte Madera Ave, just past Throckmorton in Mill Valley was lined with music fans. Some local, some not so local, waiting to get inside that small, intimate space called The Sweetwater Music Hall. It’s definitely a hike from the Monterey Bay Area; a three hour hike that is, but I know I hadn’t traveled the furthest. What we do for music. We’ve all heard the stories and seen the video out there on the chatty cats at this venue. Seeing four acoustic shows made me think that there would be a high likelihood there’d be someone chatting around me enough to distract my attention from the reason we, well I was there – music. I might have to turn around and give you a little glare and smile which would lead to a stern look if you didn’t take a hint. But, being I planted myself right up front, glueing myself to the stage, I avoided most of that. Plus, it helps to have someone come out before the show to remind the crowd that these were acoustic shows and to respect that; respect the musician, the music, and for gosh sakes those of us who came to hear it. Be a part of it; be bathed in the softness of the guitar, the sweetness of the voice, the warm harmonies. Yes, yes, that is the reason to see an acoustic show. If that is not what you want, then hopefully you have tickets for Tuesday and Wednesday.
There is good music, there is soul music, there is good for your soul music. That is how it feels with this acoustic stuff. To me, it’s the relate-able music that sticks to you most. Songs that tell a story that strike a chord or a memory and suddenly you are connected to it. See, Mr. Greene’s music came into my life years ago, thanks to one man named Phil Lesh (I know I’m not the only one who met Greene and his music starting back in 2008 when he began playing with Lesh). But in 2011, it started to get into my soul in a different way. It really was all about that acoustic show down in Big Sur, at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Just he and Nathan under the trees and stars; it was listening to the music played so softly, so introspectively, so specifically and so intensely – it all just came together in a way I had not experienced before. That experience has never left me. I took it with me as I headed east to take care of my mother who was terminally ill. I not only took the feeling, but the music. I played it every day, for me and for her. I could see her tapping her toes under the blankets as I sang along to “Alice on the Rooftop”. She would clutch my hand when she could see a song getting to me; she would smile and try to sing along to the likes of, “Gone Wanderin’” or “Another Love Gone Bad” (she’d chime in on the “nah-nah” part). I made her a playlist of all of her favorites on my iPhone – John Denver, Johnny Cash, Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Alison Krauss, The Beatles and The Band; Dolly Parton and Ann Murray, Bob Marley and Buck Owens, Del McCoury and Dan Hicks, Elton John and John Prine, and now a little Jackie Greene. She sure sang her way through… This is why music is so connective. The musician writes the songs from a certain place that ends up touching the listener in a certain place; the fan connects to something, an emotion, a memory….. whatever it is, it was a part of the musician. Music relates.
The first three shows were on the Acoustic Duo side of Jackie Greene, just he and Nathan Dale up there together, Jackie on the acoustic and Nathan filling in the spaces with those warm Gibson notes. Just the two of them. Y’all may have heard about the line-up change in the Jackie Greene Band. Additions, or rather filling in new shoes are Fitz Harris on drums and Brian Filosa on bass, who joined the fourth night for a full band unplugged show. There’s something about the way Dale and Greene play together. There is an exchange there, a chemistry, an incredible pairing that I for one am glad still exists. Like I said, it was the two of these guys together in Big Sur that really opened my ears to Jackie’s music. Acoustically, you can hear more (especially when the crowd respects that), you can feel more, you can settle in your shoes a bit more and take it all in. It was as comfortable as my own living room filled with friends. The sound is always incredible in the Sweetwater, and the warmth of the acoustic music filled the small club from corner to corner. It may even have seeped out into the streets, as I remember it being remarkably warm outside one night as we stepped out for a break between sets.
I was able to attend the first four of the six, thanks to friends who got me there. I opted to photograph only two, and just really sit back and get into it all, no camera to worry about or take me away from the notes. I can share what I felt were my favorite moments from each to save you all a very long read. Maybe. We’ll see. I will share set lists from all six nights as well, even though I didn’t get a chance to attend the final two electric shows. Bummed on that a bit, as the last night Jackie welcomed three guests up to the stage – Bob Weir for “Sugaree”, Mark Karan for “Shaken”, “So Hard to Find My Way”, and “Tell Me Mama” and Ben Jernigan for “Animal” and “Gone Wanderin’”. (I’m gonna have to look this guy up. Man, he could play and, from the pics I saw, he sure was tall!). Thanks to those who captured a few seconds here and there on video, I could tell “Animal” was sick. Love that song.
Of the four, I think my favorite night was Saturday, even though the first night was my very special day. Well, not just mine, apparently there were two guys there who were also celebrating a birthday. Needless to say, we didn’t get a “Happy Birthday” song on the set list, but that’s all good. In the end, I was gifted a large poster created specially for the April Jackie Greene run at the Sweetwater, and pile of balloons (OK, maybe I took the balloons, or maybe someone I know did, hard to really say). No, I did not let them go into the sky; I kept them and contemplated redoing my outgoing voice mail….. but when I woke in the morning, the balloons had lost their, “oomph” and ability to increase the scale and tone of my voice. Funny, when we went back the next night, the square mylar balloon was still there, in full blown-upedness, glistening in the patio lights of the Sweetwater. I knew I should have taken that one too, but gave it back to the birthday fella who it belonged. Clearly, he did not realize the helium party in those things. (Sidebar: Years ago, my room mate and I recorded our outgoing message on our answering machine after intaking some helium from left over party balloons. Ninety percent of the callers were laughing too hard to leave a message for us, and had to call back to try again. It really was hysterical. We sounded like we were from Munchkin Land.)
Night one, my favorites have to be “7 Jealous Sisters” and “Down in the Valley of Woe”, both appearing in the second set. First set was great too, especially that segue from “Honey, I Been Thinking ‘Bout You” into “Friend of the Devil” back into “Honey.” It was quite funny when Jackie forgot the words to, “Friend of the Devil.” He asked the audience for a little help, and with a high likelihood of more than a few Heads in the audience, including me and those around me, it was even funnier when we al just looked at each other also seemingly a little lost for lyrics. Clearly, starting over helps! The whole night had some familiar favs scattered all over – “I Don’t Live in a Dream”, “A Moment of Temporary Color”, “Tell Me Mama” and of course “Hollywood”… “Here’s the band, hear the band. They’re the hottest in the land. Just keeping up their contract for whatever’s in demand. Hollywood…” But, it was especially fun having Jason Crosby sit in for a while during that second set, just adding something extra to each song. “7 Jealous Sisters” was so groovy and maybe a little swampy too, surely rough and funky in a good way. “Take me home, baby, take me home, baby. Let me be your other man. Well, I ain’t good looking and I ain’t too bright, but I can keep you busy in the middle of the night. So take me and take me home. Seven sisters, seven sisters, are on my mind, they’re on my mind. They all live apart and they don’t ever speak. So I can have me one every day of the week. Seven sisters are on my mind…” Nathan all over that fret board, Jackie strumming a low rhythm, and Jason playing the fiddle while sitting at the keys (he plays both instruments quite well). And then at one point you see him hitting the keys with one hand as the other is still holdfast to the strings – it was a moment of high energy good fun. The whole night was, just the way your first of six shows should be – they come out swingin’! I couldn’t help but watch Jason; eyes closed and swaying back and forth, as he listened to Jackie and Nathan, waiting for just the right moment to add something. Like with, “Hollywood”, there was just an extra smoothness to it, with Jackie on the keys and Jason’s bow just flowing over the strings of his fiddle really gave it this super jazzy feel, like we were in a smokey bar, a dirty whiskey glass in our hands, peering through the haze watching this three man group lay it down. But, the encore, “Down in the Valley of Woe” – I say whoa. It was fast paced and deeply rhythmic, Greene wailing on the harmonica, with the sound of a quick fiddle dancing and running around a stretching guitar. It was dark and haunting. Some say this is his most Dylan-like song, and I suppose I could agree. The lyrics create the feel of a quick staccato-like beat, rhyming throughout, the harmonica commanding notice and competing with the strum of the guitar with no one winning but those in the audience. It ends, “Nursery rhymes and valentines, blessed be the tie that binds. One thousand mouths can speak one mind, while love is still left undefined. Undermined and misunderstood, she hides beneath her happy hood saying: ‘What is god? What is Good? And why am I still here?’” Then all three just open up, pushing their instruments to a new place, drawing everything they could out of each note, Greene and Dale back and forth, not guitar to guitar, but Greene on the harmonica, so wind to string. I’ve never seen it live. I was blown away.
Night two’s top picks have to be “Captain’s Daughter”, “Tonight I’ll be Staying Here with You”, “New Speedway Boogie,”and “Maria Maria” (HELLO!!!), all appearing in the first set. I do so love the song, “Captain’s Daughter,” and the simplicity of it all. Short in verses but wide in moments, the way Jackie firmly strums the acoustic guitar creating a rhythm for Nathan to move around with that fullness of the electric, the warmth and power it gives off, and the way Jackie just kills the last verse, always kills it. “I could sleep here in the quarter deck chair. Who would notice? Who would care? I could sink down to Davy Jones’ locker, for the love of the Captain’s daughter.” There was a moment in, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” when you could almost hear the reminisce of Jason Crosby on the fiddle, but it was Nathan, playing ever so softly and tricking my ears. They do this song so much more than simple justice. The way Greene selects his covers is wise. They are right for him in so many ways, and especially right for these Acoustic Duo shows and the way he and Nathan create their versions of songs is so musically sweet. I may not typically include “New Speedway Boogie” as a fav, but this one was so darn good, seriously good. From the flipping the guitar down flat to hit it like a drum to the two or three minute scrape he does with that slide, the give and take from he and Nathan one taking the rhythm while the other just takes it to a new place.
Greene says, “We’re gonna reach way back for this one,” and they pull out another first-time-played for me, “Maria, Maria (It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie).” In true Jackie Greene form, it’s quick paced and harmonica driven. Playing the guitar while also playing the harmonica is no easy feat. Not that I’ve tried, but I’ve known a few who are still putting in a great effort to master that. Each time I see someone play both, I gain a bit more respect. And then there is Nathan, challenging the quick strum by being nimble on the fret, adding a fullness to the tone of his red and orange Gibson, swirling you around in a twirling circle… or maybe twirling you around in a swirling circle….. I wasn’t too sure if/and/or when he’s played this one live before, amongst the others I’d heard for the first time on this short run. So, I “googled” it and there it is, 2010 at the Fire Escape in Sacramento. He played a number of solo shows there, just himself. I believe we need a Jackie Greene archivist, someone to start a spreadsheet of dates, locations, set lists and songs noted by first time played or how many times played or what was played before it and after it…. Kind of like in the spirit of Dead Base. Remember that? Yeah, someone be helpful and get on that please. And, you’ve got to love any night where he plays the likes of, “Bright Star” written after and for the passing of Ray Charles, a big influence on Greene’s musical upbringing, and “Motorhome” another song written for a big musical influence, Levon Helm… Or when he gets out that banjo for a killer version of Blind Willie Johnson’s, “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.”
Night three – well, the whole dam thing was awesome. Just something about the way they played that night. Maybe it was the songs they played and the need to be soulful and deep, but it all was. Everything seemed just a bit slowed down and a bit more care and attention to each note. There was a deepness to it all, the way the music filled the room, the song choices, the way they were sung… I understand there were a few in the crowd aside from myself that were hit with a bit of emotion during it all. Man, that second set starting with, “When You Return”, another one that rarely gets out of the box, then “Grindstone” followed by “Can’t Have Bad Luck All the Time” was, well, it all just left me speechless. You could hear a pin drop (um, and for the Sweetwater, that is amazing.). Everyone was focussed on the stage. The slower beat to this “Grindstone”, the softness to Neal Young’s, “After the Gold Rush”, then that groovy tease that turned into, “Eh, we’re just f*^kin’ around”, after a nice version of Elton John’s, “Burn Down the Mission.” But, it was that “Can’t Have Bad Luck All the Time”, I’ve never heard this song before. He’s tried it out once or twice since 2012 (again, I “googled” it) and it should be one to appear on his new release…. “when everything gets shattered, you will realize, that you can’t have bad luck all the time. Even losers win sometime. Stick around, baby, and you will find, that you can’t have bad luck all the time…..” Seems like it’s meant to cheer someone up, like giving someone a shoulder to cry on. Like someone telling you, “I get it. I really get it,”, and you know they do. It really got to me, the softness of Jackie’s voice, the warmth of the keys and soothing feel to Nathan’s guitar, it was very comforting. But, my absolute favorite spot of the night was earlier on in the first set with, “Brokedown Emotion” into “Slip Sliding Away” back to “Brokedown Emotion” – and they did the whole Slip Sliding, not just a mere tease of it, like the 37 seconds we got at the Chico show last December. OK, maybe there was one last verse we missed (“We work our jobs, collect our pay. Believe we’re gliding down the highway but in fact we’re slip sliding away…..”), but who’s remembering anything but that song and the lovely sing-a-long it generated. I’m sure many of us saw the recording he’s done of himself playing this one, in full, while hanging in some hotel room on the road. It was so nice to hear it live, man, so nice. So sweetly sung. Same with “A Face Among the Crowd” he pulled out on the fourth night – that one was written for Father’s Day, put out on YouTube and that was it. Incredible that he’s reaching deep for these songs. We’ve been waiting for many of them. Maybe it’s the new band giving new life to old tunes. Whatever it is, I’m a happy camper. Gosh, and that version of, “Till the Light Comes” and that ending… that ending…
Night four, my last night of the six, was labeled as full band “unplugged”, but really, it was just Jackie unplugged. All the rest was full bass beat and electrified. At one point in the first set, Jackie says, “Back for more, eh? Glutens for punishment.” Well, if this is punishment, then what do I have to do wrong….. Getting “A Face Among the Crowd”, “When You’re Walking Away” and “Prayer for Spanish Harlem” is certainly pretty easy punishment if ya ask me.
Even Jackie noted that this full band “unplugged” show really only meant he was unplugged. Then he quips, “Well, I’ll plug in my electric guitar for the last two shows and blow your f*^kin’ ears off,” which of course gets a huge cheer from the crowd. Whether plugged or not, having the full band backing, with each musician adding in their own touch, giving it a heartbeat to tap your feet to. Like with, “Light Up Your Window” with the backing of drums, bass and keys makes it sound much different than when he and Nathan play this alone. The way the song opens is even different, starting with a little ditty before the full band kicks in. And that ditty is sprinkled throughout, something you don’t hear in the stripped down acoustic version. Songs like, “Gone Wanderin’,” “Don’t Let the Devil Take Your Mind,” and “Moment of Temporary Color” played with a full band just give the songs that extra kick and punch they need.
The second set had more rarities in “When You’re Walking Away,” and “Prayer for Spanish Harlem” as well as some newer tunes to appear on the release with, “Trust Somebody” and “Hallelujah”, which is one that can go either way for me, whether it’s just Jackie on the keys and Nathan on the guitar, just waiting and listening and filling in where he senses he should; to the full-band version that blows you outta your seat or off your feet as it takes you swingin’ on down the street, with some big band noise marching behind ya. One of my favorite’s of the night, and I’m sure a favorite for a lot of Deadheads and Greeneheads alike was their take on, “Scarlet Begonias.” A song that can get stretched out for adding more fun as they circle around the stage. First stop, Nathan Dale seriously doing Jerry proud getting incredible sound and effects from his guitar, making it sing to us. Second stop, Jason Crosby on the keys, dancing around in the spirit of all who sat there. Third stop, the rhythm bass jam… Letting Brian lead this off with just a strong hold by Fitz on the drums, gave for a really funky groove. Jackie is there too, slowly joining in, getting more pronounced as the song moves forward, until Jackie takes over the highest moment of the night, gradually moving up the fret to a big crescendo, wailing on that new Eastman so hard I’m surprised there wasn’t a string blown. A well-made instrument in the hands of someone who knows how to use it properly, even giving it a sound tap or two, adding a little thump to the pocket. A perfect Grateful Dead pick for this band’s wheelhouse, to use a baseball term; you know, it’s within their swinging range, when they make the best contact with the audience, and hit it right where we want it. Gosh it was good.
I was not able to attend the last two shows, the electric side of Jackie Greene, set for Tuesday and Wednesday. I would if I could ya know, but sometimes we can’t make ’em all. With Mr. Greene now Tweeting his set lists (thank you, makes it easier) and friends in the crowd sharing updates and video clips, I can tell ya, I missed one incredible show on Wednesday. From a new song, “Now I Can See for Miles” to another rare on the list, “Ghosts of Promised Lands” and just one of my favorite rockin’, kind of in-your-face Jackie Greene with, “Animal”….. to Bob Weir showing up, Mark Karan helping out and too-tall Ben Jernigan showing off his style on the guitar….. man, yeah, missed it.
There must be something more about “Shaken.” It was played five of the six nights, and each time it opened the second set. I, for one, really like this song. A song originally meant for the guitar, but reworked for the piano, it has a resounding feel to it. I can relate, seriously relate…. “Somebody pointed out to me, ’cause I want one more chance to believe. I wanna run, go stare into the sun, watch the bay waves breaking, the human race awaken, I… I wanna know why I’m so uncertain. Behind a curtain shaken…..” Sometimes life just feels that way. Scared of the present and the future. Whether you’re relating to this song for personal or worldly purposes, whether there is a clear or hidden message to the listener, its one of those songs that can stick to you.
Greene’s been slowly letting the cat outta the bag on the new album, introducing us to his new songs for a while now in preparation for a release planned for late summer (we think), maybe called, “Back to Birth” (so I read online). We know he has songs he’s never recorded, so if we don’t get all the new one’s this time either, well, you’ll just have to go see him live to hopefully hear him pull out those hidden tracks, the dusty ones that were nicely put together but never really see too much light of day. And when he does, whether it’s with that addictive Acoustic Duo or the full band, you get what you need. I mean he could probably put out a double or another in a handful of years. Like, “Hallelujah” which I want to say I first heard it live at the NYE run in Tahoe, in 2011, and he released a video of it in early 2012, which seemingly disappeared soon after, and is now back out there on vimeo. Or “Trust Somebody” and “Can’t Have Bad Luck All the Time” – not necessarily brand new, as they’ve been played live more than once since Jackie’s penned them. There are other new one’s like, “Light Up your Window”, which he says will appear on the new release, has been played live since last year (2014), first acoustically with Nathan, and now electrically with the full band, giving it a slightly different feel. He makes those songs that just stick with you and you find yourself singing it days later, “And when the rhythm of the freight train running, meets the song of the jet plain humming. Light up your window, baby, I’ll be coming home, where we can be alone…..” New is new enough, as there hasn’t been a full studio release since 2010, aside from recording with Trigger Hippy or those special releases for Record Store Day. We’ve been patiently waiting…
So, with the release of a new album on the horizon, a few new members to his band, and a bit of a tour scheduled for the summer, Jackie seems reconnected to his music in a way that reminds me of why I felt connected to his music in the first place. Focused and commanding each note, introspective and intimate with his lyrics, and also very real and relatable stuff that resonates…. And, he’s a true bluesman too; with his own, “Tell Me Mama”, “Down in the Valley of Woe”, “Don’t Let the Devil Take Your Mind”, “Animal”, or “Cold Black Devil”. The way he goes deep into the lyrics, leading the band into the old south with the likes of covers such as, “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had” – he connects to it like he’s lived it. But, that Acoustic Duo is something special. Its a bit of a sensational musical dream, the way that Jackie and Nathan pair the “unplugged” but strong driven rhythms with a touch of sweet, soaring electric guitar. If this Duo comes to a town near you, even remotely near, I suggest you high tail it there. Get in line early and get a spot up front, you won’t be sorry. It’ll be like nothin else. Hello east coast, I’m talking to you! In particular, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Gosh, can’t wait for this new release. According to his website, it should be out in August. Well, August cannot get here fast enough.
Night 1 – Thursday, April 9
Special Guest Second Set: Jason Crosby (fiddle, keyboards)
First Set: I Don’t Live in a Dream, I’m so Gone, Honey I’ve Been Thinkin’ About You> Friend of the Devil> Honey I Been Thinkin’ About You, A Moment of Temporary Color, Medicine, Silver Lining, Big City
Second Set: Shaken, Grindstone, Tell Me Mama, Hollywood, Hallelujah, 7 Jealous Sisters, Gone Wanderin’ Encore: Down in the Valley of Woe
Night 2 – Friday, April 10
First Set: Don’t Let the Devil Take Your Mind, Captain’s Daughter, Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You, Farewell, So Long Goodbye, New Speedway Boogie, Maria Maria (It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie), Light Up Your Window
Second Set: Shaken, Bright Star, Trust Somebody, 1961, Nobody’s Fault but Mine, Motorhome, Mexican Girl Encore: Sweet Somewhere Bound
Night 3 – Saturday, April 11
First Set: About Cell Block #9, Brokedown Emotion> Slip Sliding Away> Brokedown Emotion, Another Love Gone Bad, Just as Well, Deal, One Bad Love, Take Me Back in Time
Second Set: When You Return, Grindstone, Can’t Have Bad Luck All the Time, After the Gold Rush, Burn Down the Mission, Never Satisfied, Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright, Till the Light Comes, Like a Ball and Chain Encore: So Many Roads
Night 4 – Sunday, April 12
Special Guest Entire Show: Jason Crosby (fiddle, keyboards)
First Set: Gone Wanderin, Uphill Mountain, Don’t Let the Devil Take Your Mind, Spooky Tina, You Can’t Lose What You Never Had, A Face Among the Crowd, Light Up Your Window, A Moment of Temporary Color
Second Set: Shaken, So Hard to Find My Way, Trust Somebody, When You’re Walking Away, I Don’t Live in a Dream, Prayer for Spanish Harlem, Scarlet Begonias Encore: Hallelujah
Night 5 – Tuesday, April 14
First Set: I’m So Gone, Medicine, Farewell So Long Goodbye, A Moment Of Temporary Color, New Speedway Boogie, Till The Light Comes
Second Set: Shaken, So Hard To Find My Way, Trust Somebody, Don’t Let The Devil Take Your Mind, Back To Birth, Ballad of Sleepy John, Cold Black Devil / 14 Miles Encore: Scarlet Begonias
Night 6 – Wednesday, April 15
Special Guests: * Bob Weir, # Mark Karan, ^ Ben Jernigan
First Set: I Don’t Live in a Dream, I’m So Gone, Spooky Tina, Now I can See For Miles, Uphill Mountain, Silver Lining, Sugaree*
Second Set: Shaken#, So Hard to Find My Way#, Tell Me Mama#, Animal^, Gone Wanderin ^, Light Up Your Window, Ghosts of Promised Lands Encore: Like a Ball and Chain