Days later I’m still reeling. Jackie, Jackie, Jackie. You sure know how to throw a birthday party. This year’s three set event was packed with tunes from Greene’s song book, rock n’ roll covers of Traffic and the Allman Brothers Band, and two handfuls of songs from the Grateful Dead supported by both Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, of course. Who else showed up to the party? Jason Crosby sat in the whole night, moving from keys to organ and sometimes picking up the fiddle; Mark Karan was also on and off the stage the entire night, a San Francisco rock guitar player (Ratdog, The Other One’s, Dave Mason, Phil Lesh & Friends, Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum, etc.); Nicki Bluhm of Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, a long time pal of Greene who’s voice and presence can add a touch of class to any stage; session drummer/instructor/music producer Bruce Spencer (maybe best known for time with Jackie Greene early on, also The 77s, Wynona Judd, Charlie Peacock…..); San Francisco Bay Area session guitar player and often frequenter at Terrapin Crossroads and with Phil & Friends, Ross James; and Jackie’s bro Alex Nelson joining Jason Crosby playing the black and whites.
The first set was mostly all Greene. Opening with the title track from his newest release (Back to the Bottom 2015), “Back to the Bottom,” before moving back in time with, “Ghosts of Promised Land,” a song that doesn’t often appear on the set list (only 11 times since 2013, according to the statistics on setlist.fm, which relies on music fans to post set information, so take it for what it is…..). On the sweet and soulful side, stuff that Jackie does so well, they pull out another from his latest with, “Silver Lining.” With lyrics that almost everyone can relate to and that gooey slide that tugs at your soul, the tonality and softness of his voice drives the imagry and lyrics right to your musical center. I for one love this side of Greene’s writing. It almost feels like he’s letting you into his creative world, just a little.
“It’s my birthday,” Greene says to the roar of the crowd. “so, uh, I got a lot of friends here that are gonna help us out.” And, Jackie welcomes Mark Karan to the stage for the last three of the first set – Traffic’s “Medicated Goo,” a tune that is starting to appear more frequently on his set lists, which is perfectly wonderfully OK by me and everyone else. When Jackie puts together covers, he puts together the good ones, the one’s he can soar on. I mean, c’mon, you’ve got Mark Karan, Nathan Dale and Jackie Greene, all exchanging lics and jams, each in their own style that seemed to blend so well for this rock ‘n roll tune; then, with barely a moment to catch a breath, they start into this sweet groove. I was kind of a tad unsure of what was coming, until I heard, “When I speak your name, I start to shake inside…” which can only be, “That’s What Love Will Make You Do.” This Little Milton R&B tune has been covered by many, including Jerry Garcia, Warren Haynes and The Allman Brothers to name a few. Well, and speaking of the Allman Brothers, “Hot ‘Lanta,” was a bit of a surprise as it was a first for me; and, holy hotlanta man, did they set that one on fire! For this, extra rhythm was in order so up to the stage and to the second drum kit not so inconspicuosly sitting there, was Bruce Spencer. They nailed it. The tonality of the guitars, and the exchanges whether going back and forth or when playing in synchronicity, were spot on; the warmth and fullness of the organ brought me back to that 70’s sound the Allman’s put out that was so recognizably them; the busy and complicated rhythm, with that rolling bass and dualing drums held it all together; it gelled, it soared, it raged, it had peaks and valleys, it took you for a ride.
Closing the first set was, “’Till the Light Comes,” the title track from his 2010 release and one tune that starts out so danceable, so blissfully danceable (“Swing wide, mama, swing low. Come and love me baby ‘fore I have to go….”), before it slows down to get deep inside your being and washes over you with sweet guitar and soft lyrics and asks, “How can I get closer to you?” Just keep playing music, Jackie, it’s that simple. Speaking of keeping on playing, it had been five years since he put out a new album. Jackie had released nearly one new album each year from 2001 to 2010 and then nada. His newest, Back to Birth, released in 2015 was the only since ‘Till the Light Comes. It was a long time to wait, but it was worth it.
After a quick break, the lights fade down again and the band comes back to the stage with an extra member….. Bob Weir takes to the microphone and Greene to the mandolin, as Jackie explains that they’re gonna try to play some tunes from Bob’s new record called, Gonesville. Psyched! I’ve heard snippits of Weir’s new release and this has put a taste in my mouth for a bit more. It was a short set, just shy of 30 minutes of acoustic music from both Weir and Greene’s repertoire. Oh, and one from the good ‘ole Grateful Dead. I really dug the new Weir stuff. It sounded real good, real good. The lightness of the mandolin, the smoothness of the fiddle (one of two times Jason Crosby would leave the keys for the strings), the softness of how Fitz Harris and Jon Cornell felt the beat. The only one electrified was Nathan, house left/stage right, filling in around everyone, placing notes right where they belong. The short set would end with a bit of a sing-a-long, as “Ripple,” usually is. Let there be songs to fill the air!
Another quick set break and they’d be back to play more. More Dead to be specific, and that’s quite alright by me. An hour and 45-minutes of high energy, guitar raging, stage filled bliss to be exact! Opening with a rockin’, “Jack Straw,” with lyrics moving between Bob, Jackie, Nathan Dale and Fitz Harris back on the drums, they loaded up this one with the fervor it deserved, and then some. This set was not only packed with jams and exchanges, but the stage became more crowded as the set progressed, with Alex Nelson sitting in at the piano along with Jason Crosby, Phil Lesh joining the fun, Mark Karan and Bruce Spencer back to their spots, Nicki Bluhm sneaking in and out to lend her voice now and again, and joining the stage towards the end of the night was local Bay Area guitarman Ross James, a frequent presence at Terrapin Station (Lesh’s place in Marin). That’s 12 different players people, count ’em. You’ll need both hands and a few toes.
Tossing in one funky one by the Temptations, “Shakey Ground,” Bob’s rip to the strings was front and center, that fluid wrist just writhing back and forth, his voice rough and rowdy with Greene and Dale adding more guitar funk and feel at every turn. Jackie introduces his next guest to the roar of the crowd, saying, “It’s a party now!” And, out comes Phil Lesh to add his funky, jazzy, melodic, cosmic, thunderous… call it what you want, but his touch to the night was pronounced and strong. Taking us back down the golden road of Grateful Dead jams, they’d start up this offering with that light, danceable, groovey and sweet “Scarlet Begoinias,” one that Jackie and his band play often these days. Joyous sound filled the air, as Bobby took the lead on vocals, forgetting a lyric here and there which drew smiles and laughter from the stage and crowd. The guitar solos moved from stage left to right, and then back again, Jackie directing each one to take over where the last left their note, then looking over to the keys to Jason and his brother, before back to more guitar. The jam that took us into, “Fire on the Mountain,” strong and full, the peak was filled with furry from not only Jackie’s quick movement on the strings but the thundering patterns from the rhythm section of Harris and Lesh. Then came the funk, the thick and gooey funk. That wah-wah wasn’t as prominent as Jerry would have done it, but the fullness of the notes were still played with such richness and commitment to the feel of what this song is all about. Taking lead vocals, Nicki Bluhm stretched her notes and elongated the words to match the length of the beat, which just kept the whole thing deeply groovy, oh so deeply groovy.
Returning to the stage for the remainder of the night Bruce Spencer filled out the music that much more, giving the drums a little more punch, a little more rhythmic and tribal feel at times, especially moving into, “I’m So Gone,” which was, for me, not the expected song to come out of or return to “Dark Star,” but it did work. You could feel the beat changing at the end of the closing jam, but it was difficult to feel where they were headed with it. There were some really great little musical runs on the organ by Crosby and some interesting guitar work by…. well, that was hard to tell exactly, with not only Jackie Greene, Nathan Dale, Bob Weir and Mark Karan up there, but I’d noticed and heard the distinct sound of a new guitar join in. Expected not necessarily from kinship but from amp and little red truck, it was Ross James who had added his style to the groove, that, to the roar of the crowd, eventually and thunderously turned into that oh so danceable and fun, “Shakedown Street.” I look up and see Greene with his hands off his guitar just doing a little dance as he listened to everyone around him get on the groove. So, there’s this tactile memory I have of seeing the Jerry Garcia Band at the Warfield (as often as I could I might add). The hippies would get to dancing so hard that one could actually stop dancing, stand completely still and yet still be dancing because the floor under you was bouncing up and down with the beat. Yup. That’s how “Shakedown” was. So good.
Closing out the third set, they continued with the light spirited danceable music that is just oh, so familiar to the the Dead Head crowd there as well as the Greene fans, since he’s been hanging with Weir and Lesh so much. Who can resist the party that’s within, “China Cat Sunflower” and “I Know You Rider!” As with the third set opener, “Jack Straw”, lyrics for “Rider” would be tossed around the stage from Weir, Greene, Karan, Dale and Harris with everyone singing in on the refrain, including if not everyone in the audience than nearly. It was energetic, fun, and light-hearted; there was opportunity abound for each of the five guitar players to take a moment to shine, to lead the parade so to speak, to be the drum major of the marching band, choreographing each note.
Before the sweet, sweet encore, as the band returned back to the stage for one more, out from stage right comes Nicki with a cake filled with candles. 36 to be exact. She says, “Ever since I’ve known Jackie, I met him when he was a young boy; ever since, he’s only wanted to be an old man.” As Jackie smiles on and rubbs his belly, she says, “You’re well on your way!” A crowd sing-a-long to “Happy Birthday” and a final, party closer with, “Sugaree” would blow out the candles on that birthday cake.
So, what a birthday party! Three hours of music and merriment. And, what a group of musicians, what a group of friends he’s got; some serious talent just oozed from the stage. The music was tight. It flowed naturally (OK, for the most part, aside from a few lost words and notes, but seriously, for a barely rehersed gig……). There was not only musical chemistry but vocal harmonies that reflected their ability to hear and play just about anything, with just about anyone. You could feel the love in the house. The fans for the music and the clear comradre and love for Greene, “America’s favorite cowboy poet,” as Weir would call him. My best advice? Don’t miss next year’s birthday party. Don’t.
Set One – Greene and Covers:
Back to the Bottom, Ghosts of Promised Lands, Now I Can See for Miles, Silver Lining, Medicated Goo*, That’s What Love Will Make You Do*, Hot ‘Lanta* %, ‘Till the Light Comes* %
Set Two – Acousticly Speaking with Bob Weir
Gonesville, Lay My Lily Down, Gone Wanderin’, Light Up Your Window, Ripple
Set Three – Dead Set:
Jack Straw # +, Standing on Shaky Ground # +, Scarlet Begonias>> Fire on the Mountain # ^ < +, Dark Star>> I’m So Gone>> Dark Star * # % ^ +, Shakedown Street>> Another Brick in the Wall>> Shakedown Street * # % ^ < = +, China Cat Sunflower>> I Know You Rider * # % ^ < = +
Guest List (in order of appearance on stage)
w/Jason Crosby (sat in the entire evening)
* w/Mark Karan
% w/Bruce Spencer
# w/Bob Weir
+ w/ Alex Nelson
^ w/Phil Lesh
< w/Nicki Bluhm
= w/ Ross James