Jackie Greene brings Americana back to life

By Sam Robertson

On his latest album, “Giving Up The Ghost,” Jackie Greene continues to show why he is one of the best young songwriters in rock and roll today. Greene, who began his career wandering around California coffee houses with an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and a scruffy folk look, was heralded as the new Bob Dylan by the press. The Dylan comparisons aren’t going away, especially since Greene has transitioned from folk music to rock and roll just like Bob Dylan forty three years ago. After releasing a couple unsuccessful but critically acclaimed folk rock records in his early twenties, Jackie Greene found more success with his electric album “American Myth” and he continues his evolution from folk to rock and roll on “Giving Up The Ghost.”Greene, who is only 27 years old, has already explored most genres of American music. On his first album, “Gone Wanderin’,” he mostly sticks to an acoustic guitar and harmonica sound. Although Greene has never explored the protest folk music that populated Dylan’s early albums, his combination of acoustic guitar and harmonica is undoubtedly reminiscent of early Dylan, although a couple of songs featured an electric backing band to mix the sound up. On his next two albums, Greene followed the same guitar and harmonica pattern but would have a few rock and roll songs on each to mix them up.

On his 2006 album, “American Myth,” Greene diversified and used an official electric backing band for the first time. Drums, bass, keyboard, electric guitar and sometimes other instruments now augmented his original sound. The country rock and roll sound that flowed steadily throughout the album led the New York Times to dub him the “Prince of Americana.” This was a new sound for Greene, but the album was more commercial sounding and received more airplay than his previous efforts. Former Grateful Dead bassist, Phil Lesh, happened to hear the album on the radio and see Greene perform at Bonnaroo that year. He was so impressed that he recruited Greene to play in his band. Playing lead guitar in Phil Lesh & Friends, a band where lengthy solos and explorations into space are standard, also allowed Greene to show off his prodigious guitar talent. Greene said, “I was never a Deadhead and I’m kinda turning into one now because I’ve gotten to discover all this music that I never knew.” Despite never listening to very much Grateful Dead in his past, the band certainly has a strong influence on him now. Greene admits that his exposure to that band has influenced his musical arrangements and lyrics and said that the final song and centerpiece of the album “Ghosts of Promised Lands” is a “San Francisco song” that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Grateful Dead album. In fact, the album owes much of its overall sound to the loose country folk rock that the Dead invented with the single in 1970.

The album opens with the single “Shaken,” with pedal steel guitar providing a warm, welcoming country rock sound. In the next song, “Animal,” Greene plays synthesizer and organ in addition to guitar to give it a thick, rich texture that was absent from Greene’s earlier work. Each song features some kind of quirky instrumentation that makes it unique. For example, the unusual drum pattern in “I Don’t Live In A Dream,” the horns in “Don’t Let the Devil Take Your Mind,” accordion in “Another Love Gone Bad” and synthesizer in “Like a Ball and Chain” make the music different from typical Americana roots rock.

On “Giving Up The Ghost,” Greene seems to capture the magic of The Band, Little Feat and the Grateful Dead at their peaks in the early seventies. They all blended folk, blues and country into a new genre of music that has since been labeled Americana roots rock. At its base, Jackie Greene’s music follows that formula but he makes it unique by combining so many different instruments and sounds. In addition to being an excellent guitar and harmonica player, Greene plays keyboard and is backed up by drums, bass and many other instruments throughout the album. All the songs have individual nuances, but they seem to flow and belong together. In addition to the brilliant instrumental arrangements, the album still features what got Greene discovered: his vocals and lyrics. Jackie Greene has continued to grow and mature into one of the best songwriters on the rock scene today. Vocally, he can pull off both a rough bluesy swagger and a soft, country croon.

“Giving Up The Ghost” is just another chapter in Jackie Greene’s musical career, which should continue to get better. Although the sound of “Giving Up The Ghost” seems like a transformation from the sound of “Gone Wanderin’,” listening to Greene’s albums in order, one can hear a direct transition from one album to the next. Jackie Greene has evolved as a musician, not transformed. “Giving Up The Ghost” is essentially an extension of “American Myth. “Giving Up The Ghost” features the roots rock sound that emerged on “American Myth,” but now it is focused, refined and stronger. “Giving Up The Ghost” is not a perfect album but it is the best of Greene’s career and the best album that I’ve heard in 2008. Greene is on tour to promote the album and will be playing at The Varsity Theatre in Minneapolis on April 22nd.