Jackie Greene comes alive

Guitarist breaks from the Dead
By BRETT MILANO  |  August 3, 2010

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DEAD RINGER: “I just wanted to do the [Grateful Dead] songs justice, because they really are great songs. It’s a whole world of music that I wasn’t familiar with.”
It doesn't take much to prove that modern-day Americana owes more to the Grateful Dead than it ever wanted to admit — one listen to Wilco's two most recent albums ought to do the trick. But nobody's ever straddled the alt-rock and jam-band worlds quite as nimbly as 29-year-old California guitarist Jackie Greene.

It's likely that many of Greene's fans don't even know about the half-dozen albums he's made as a songwriter — albums that include the new Till the Light Comes (429 Records). Instead, they know him as the youngest lead guitarist to infiltrate the Dead circle — he toured with Phil Lesh & Friends three years ago and has played with other spinoffs since. Greene has an improviser's knack not just for going with the flow but for intuiting where the flow has been. I saw him earlier this year with the venerable New Orleans band the Radiators, where he managed to work himself into a conversation with that band's two guitarists, who've been playing together for three decades. When he hits Bank of America Pavilion this Friday, he'll be opening for (and probably sitting in with) jam-rock monoliths Gov't Mule.

Yet Till the Light Comes is not really a guitar album, and definitely not a Dead album. The sound is indeed a throwback — but only to about 1995, when gifted introverts like Matthew Sweet and Elliott Smith were lifting '60s pop references to suit their own mood swings. Working with producer Tim Bluhm (leader of the underrated neo-psych band the Mother Hips), Greene comes up with a set of tunes that can contain the world of pop references he throws in. These range from the obvious (Al Kooper's "Like a Rolling Stone" organ lick on "Shaky Ground") to the obscure ("Spooky Tina" is a Sir Douglas Quintet–style Tex-Mex stomp, and the layered harmonies on "Stranger in Sand" hark back to cult-hero tunesmith Emitt Rhodes). Still, you never get the impression that Greene, who plays most of the instruments here, is trying to show off how many sounds he can re-create. Rather, what's borrowed is there to underline what's in the various characters' heads. The Dead — specifically their countrified American Beauty sound — are echoed only once, on "1961," which is about a truck driver reunited at the end of his life with a son he conceived that year. American Beauty is an album the character would have played in his truck — it is, after all, the one that includes "Truckin.' "

And yet, Till the Light Comes's best song — and its most commercial-sounding one, despite the instances of "fuck" in the chorus — flies in the face of '60s hippiedom. "Medicine" is that rarity, a convincing anti-drug song — though it could as easily be about psychedelics as antidepressants.

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