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The twists and turns of Jackie Greene

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NOTE: This story is an opinion piece, based on this reporter’s previous coverage of Jackie Greene, which dates back to 2004.

At virtually any given time, in any town or city in America, there is a “next big thing.”

There is that one musician or band tirelessly performing local shows and trying to make a name, but everyone in town who has seem them play is convinced that they’ve “got it” and are going to go the distance (Sacramento music pun is absolutely intended).

Maybe we want it as much for ourselves, so we can say we say them in the small local clubs way back when. Maybe we just like seeing them play some tunes. Whatever the reason, we just know it’s going to happen – and it is a relatively rare event when it actually does happen, when one of those golden children, embraced and encouraged by the arms of popular adoration, does indeed “make it.”

For the early and middle 2000’s, ours was Jackie Greene.

And that begs the question: When we see Jackie Greene return Sac-side to perform hometown shows, like the pair on deck this week, are we seeing the Jackie Greene that we thought or expected (demanded?) he would be, or are we seeing the Jackie Greene that he always was and wanted to be?

Jackie Greene performs the first of two Sacramento shows with his full band at 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 23 at Marilyn’s on K, 908 K St. Tickets are $25, and as of Monday afternoon there are still tickets available via Marilyn’s website.

Show number two is at 9 p.m. (doors 8 p.m.) on Thursday, March 24 at the Blue Lamp, 1400 Alhambra Blvd. Tickets are $25, and can be bought through Dig Music between the hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at (916) 442-5344, www.digmusic.com. There will be a limited amount of tickets at the door the day of show, beginning after 4 p.m. Both shows are 21+.

Two Sac shows in two days? What year is it?!

It truly doesn’t seem like that long ago that he was the youthful prodigy from up the hill in Cameron Park. Barely out of his teenage years, he looked like he weighed about 150 pounds soaking wet, sported wiry, stringy hair and a pair of too-cool-for-school bluesman shades while playing gigs at spots like Marilyn’s (the original 12th and K location), Harlow’s and the Torch Club, leading a three-piece band with Ben Lefever and Hence Phillips and showing off mere seedlings of what was to come.

Like so many blues, folk and rock singers of his similar breed standing trial in the court of public opinion, he was one of countless other “next Bob Dylans” – and he probably wouldn’t have bought you a beer to thank you for that “compliment.”

Under the tutelage of local label Dig Music and his manager Marty DeAnda (who still manages him today), “Greenehead" fever was taking over Sacramento by 2004, right around the time he released his self-made “Sweet Somewhere Bound.” It was a deliberately minimalist record, showcasing his almost other-worldy mature chops as a songwriter on a deeper level than did his locally revered bar and festival anthem pack of an album, “Gone Wanderin’.”

With an increased and expanding touring presence, they were clearly taking notice outside of Sacramento, as Verve/Forecast Records picked him up in 2005, re-released “Sweet Somewhere,” and prepared to quarterback his national breakout by ushering him into the studio to lay down “American Myth” in 2006.

All of a sudden, we were hearing “Honey I Been Thinking About You” while we were buying khakis at The Gap, leading up to the release of “Myth,” a pop heavy album which gave the world the saccharine ditty “Closer to You.”

Hey, these shirts are on sale, let’s see if they have your size in the…holy crap, that’s Jackie Greene on the sound system!

This was it. He’d arrived. He was a major label artist, a national touring fixture, and we here in Sactown all knew it was going to happen just like this. Score one for us.

But, fast forward to 2007. We’d have been stupid to think that Jackie would or could go “all the way” in Sacramento, as he took the necessary step in moving to San Francisco, hastily motivated when he came across an available space to set up his own recording studio with pal Tim Bluhm of the Mother Hips (and the other creative half of the Skinny Singers project, which also features Jackpot drummer Mike Curry).

Why his own studio? He walked on the deal with Verve/Forecast amid contractual differences, one of many casualties of a shaky recording industry that has found countless artists holding I.O.U. notes. The follow up to “American Myth” was soon to come, but it would come on his own terms as a newly independent artist, and it would come after lending his time and talents on tour as the front man of Phil Lesh & Friends.

Our golden boy, fronting a Grateful Dead offshoot band? Lord have mercy, how did this happen?

“Giving Up the Ghost” followed in 2008, distributed by the relatively anonymous 429 Records (also home to Bruce Hornsby, New York Dolls and Dr. John). It was a sonically dingy record that stood in stark contrast to the squeaky clean pop veneer of “Myth.” Listen to “Hollywood” and “Shaken” back-to-back and you’ll think you’re on a bullet train to Bizarro World.

That Dylan haircut is long gone; he’s sporting rock and roll locks, an indie rock beard, thrift store troubadour threads, and the hat – well, that one could go several different ways. Last year’s snappy and crafty “Till The Light Comes” is similarly lacking any of those real or fabricated preconceptions of who many thought Jackie Greene was, circa twenty-ought-four.

The one thing that the fans did get right was the popularity. He routinely packs rooms of Fillmore size coast to coast. Tens of thousands flocked to see him at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in October, where he devoted nearly ten minutes of his set to covering one of his personal favorites, the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie.”

“Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack, if you’ve got nothing new to say.”

The house was packed for a surprise pre-Thanksgiving show at the Blue Lamp in 2009, with hundreds lined up hoping to hear some “Mexican Girl” or a little "Tell Me Mama, Tell Me Right." The band performed "Mexican Girl," but he let his little brother take lead vocals. "Tell Me Mama?" The original acoustic guitar and harp-on-the-rack are gone, as that tune now lives as a down-tempo, smokey blues lounge-dwelling soul scorcher delivered by Hammond B3. The band spent most of the rest of the night inviting a few friends on stage, jamming around and covering the Beatles, Creedence, and Merle Haggard – but no “New Speedway” that night.

“You can’t overlook the lack, Jack, of any other highway to ride/ It’s got no signs, or dividing lines, and very few rules to guide.”

Was Jackie Greene trying to find his inner punk rocker and flip the middle finger to the preconceptions of his music and career? Hardly. Bear in mind, he’s only a few months north of his “Dirty Thirty” birthday. All of us go through several changes in tastes and preferences of music when we’re in our twenties (I still have that first Disturbed album laying around somewhere), and performing artists should be, and are, no exception.

But it cannot be denied that many artists in Jackie Greene’s position, and with that “next big thing” monkey on their backs, can and do spend their whole lives and careers on cruise control, riding the highway that was Mapquested for them by the tastes of the fans that helped get them there.

Jackie has always been one to write songs about desolate trails and dusty roads, and you have to take a moment to stand in appreciation of an artist that could have taken the express lane, but chose that dusty frontage road instead, regardless of a few gravel patches and potholes.

Jackie Greene has achieved (and is still achieving) the popularity we always knew he would, but over the last couple of years, he’s found the path to do it his own way, by writing, recording and performing the music that he wants to write, perform and record – and it is hard to argue that he is not a more alluring, exciting and complete artist because of it.

“Who can deny, who can deny, it’s not just a change in style/ One step down and another begun, and I wonder how many miles.”

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