Jackie Greene

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While it's undeniable that the record business can be cruel and cold, and it spits out some of its best while lesser talents rise to the top, there are certain artists who just seem destined to make it, who have that elusive, can't-miss X factor. Like Jackie Greene, whose latest release, Giving Up the Ghost, has critics and fans alike (again) predicting stardom for the talented Northern California native.

At 27, Greene's no longer the wunderkind singer/songwriter who, following a youth spent mostly in the Sierra Gold Rush town of Placerville, moved to Sacramento after high school and immediately took the area by storm. Here was an “old soul,” wise beyond his years, who drew from blues, folk, old-time country, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, The Band and many other influences that he seamlessly integrated into a distinctive, personal style. The musical equivalent of a “five tools” baseball player, he was a strong and confident singer adept at myriad styles; a soulful multi-instrumentalist comfortable playing almost any stringed instrument, keyboards, harmonica, even drums; a magnetic performer either solo or with a band; an outstanding songwriter who easily blended a personal/confessional approach with broader American roots music archetypes; and a knowledgeable home recordist with respectable engineering chops.

He made his first album, Rusty Nails, when he was just 20. Shortly after that, he was “discovered” in Sacramento by manager Marty DeAnda, who signed Greene to his indie label, Dig Music. The 2002 disc Gone Wanderin' was picked as a top album by Rolling Stone critics and won a California Music Award for Best Blues/Roots album. On that album and Sweet Somewhere Bound, Greene played nearly all of the instruments himself. Meanwhile, as a performer he continued to hone his craft, and increasingly landed prestigious opening slots on shows by established acts. Indeed, the first time I even heard his name was when he opened a 2005 concert by Los Lobos at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Armed with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica, he put on one of the most mesmerizing “warm-up” sets I'd ever seen. I wasn't alone in that opinion: Los Lobos keyboardist, reeds player and producer Steve Berlin also saw Greene for the first time that night, and was so taken by his set that he later struck up a friendship with him, which led to Berlin producing Greene's masterful 2006 opus, American Myth, his first effort for the bigger Verve/Forecast label, and my favorite album from that year.

Photo: Jay Blakesberg

That album marked a change in recording direction. While Greene still maintained a very strong instrumental presence on the disc, Berlin surrounded him with a crack band of Los Angeles players who are known collectively as Jackshit — guitarist Val McCallum, bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello fame) — and such notable colorists as steel guitar ace Greg Leisz, Los Lobos percussionist Cougar Estrada and Berlin himself.

Berlin reflects, “We wanted it to sound like a band that had been together for years. The paradigm in my mind was The Faces before Rod turned into ‘Rod Stewart’ — when they had a great time and you could hear on every track that they were having a good time. So we tried to build that camaraderie in the process. Then we found this nice, funky studio called Sage & Sound in Hollywood, which is like a museum of great 1972 recording gear. There's nothing that tells you anything else. It's even got the shag carpeting!” Mark Johnson engineered that fine disc.

Despite across-the-board critical accolades for American Myth, sales were only so-so, in part because the Verve team that had been behind Greene started to unravel shortly after the album's release, so he never received the sort of promotional follow-through that could have taken the album to the next level. Meanwhile, another label came a-courtin'. While he was still signed to Verve, 429 Records — a division of another label, Savoy — gave Greene some money to go into a studio with his band and producer Berlin and cut a song for their exceptional tribute to The Band, Endless Highway. “And I said, ‘If we're getting together, why do one song when we could do few,’” Berlin recalls. “‘There's enough money there so let's see what we can do.’ So in July 2006, we went into The Hangar [Studios] in Sacramento and cut The Band song ‘Lookout Cleveland’ and then three of Jackie's tunes: ‘Prayer for Spanish Harlem,’ ‘When You Return’ and ‘Uphill Mountain.’ Those songs became the start of the new album.”

Berlin says The Hangar has “a funky, old, wonderful vibe, and lots of cool vintage gear. It's run by the guy who publishes Tape Op magazine [John Bacciagaluppi] and it's a true boutique studio filled with better-mouse-trap preamps and great, weird audio stuff and weird old instruments.”

“The studio is hard to describe,” agrees Ralph Stover, who engineered the tracks at The Hangar. “The main room is like this huge gymnasium room with skateboard ramps everywhere, and it's got all these corridors and rooms everywhere. But you walk in the control room and [Bacciagaluppi's] got every piece of gear you could possibly want, so there is always a lot of, ‘Let's try this! I've never used this before.’

“John's always saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I just bought this from some dude in Yugoslavia and we had it modded by this guy, so why don't you use it and tell me what you think,” Stover continues. “It's like a little playground. And Steve is not afraid to try anything; he's a lot of fun.”

Stover says the sessions at The Hangar were mostly recorded live to 16-track 2-inch, and then later transferred to Pro Tools. This became the M.O. for the rest of the album, too: basic tracking on tape, then migrating that material to Pro Tools for editing and overdubs.

By the summer of 2007, Greene had extricated himself from Verve and signed a deal with 429, and that's when work began in earnest on Giving Up the Ghost. There had been a couple of important developments in the interim.

First, Greene had moved from Sacramento to San Francisco — finding a pad just a few blocks from the beach in the Sunset district — and joined forces with his friend Tim Bluhm of the band Mother Hips to take over a funky studio, once called Wide Hive, in the Bernal Heights area of S.F. “I have nothing against Sacramento,” Greene points out, sitting in the control room of the studio now called Mission Bells. “More than a change of scenery, I wanted a change of attitude, and that's a big reason I moved to San Francisco. It seems like I run into a lot of creative people down here, a lot of musicians; there's so much going on. And so far the studio's been really great for us. We haven't even had any electrical problems chasing down hums.”

The other big change in Greene's life was that in the summer of 2007, he was tapped by former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh to join his touring jam band, Phil Lesh & Friends, as lead singer and co-lead guitarist (with Larry Campbell). Not bad for a guy who really only heard Dead music through his parents' vinyl record collection when he was a teenager and hadn't played improvisational rock 'n' roll at all. Yet here he was, playing before thousands of Dead Heads every night, singing classic Dead songs and sprinkling in a smattering of his own tunes, all of which were very well-received by an audience that mostly had never heard of him.

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Greene is committed to touring with Lesh's band through the end of 2008, squeezing jaunts by his own band in between. But the first collision of his two musical worlds came this past summer when he and Berlin decided to get serious about completing the new album. “The problem was that Jackie was now doing the Phil tour and Los Lobos were on tour with John Mellencamp,” the producer recalls, “so we were looking at our calendars, and we realized that if the record was even going to have a prayer of coming out in March or April [of 2008], we were really going to have to not just bust our ass, but be in two places at once. So I mapped out the next four or five months and there were enough little windows to get it done.”

Before the Lesh and Los Lobos tours started, Greene and his band went into Mission Bells for a week and cut basics for a handful of new tunes, with Oz Fritz engineering. A one-time protégé of New York producer/musician Bill Laswell, Fritz moved to California in the early '90s and is perhaps best-known for engineering three albums by Tom Waits, who just happens to be a god to Greene. “I'm like a Tom Waits freak,” Greene says with a smile. “I like everything he ever does. I like the weird shit; I like the normal shit. I like the pre-gravelly voice, I like the gravelly voice. He can do no wrong to me.”

Of course, Greene pumped Fritz for info about Waits' famously unorthodox recording techniques, and Berlin already had inclinations in those directions, having worked with Tchad Blake on some of Los Lobos' greatest albums. So it's no surprise that the sessions for Giving Up the Ghost often featured unusual sonic choices, whether it was using extraordinary amounts of compression for distortion “or going into studios and picking up a guitar you've never seen and an amp you've never heard, and just going for it,” Greene says. Or recording to Greene's old Otari MX-70 1-inch 16-track, which has two broken channels. “You only have 14 tracks to work with,” he says, “so everything counts. I like to commit things to tape. Committing yourself to a certain thing, like a reverb or effect, is helpful because then you build around that initial color.”

“It's limiting having not that many tracks,” Fritz agrees, “but it becomes a parameter in how you do stuff, so it becomes a part of the equation. I didn't feel constrained. It just meant maybe I couldn't have stereo room mics; I'd just have mono.”

As for the overall sonic approach to the album, “Steve and Jackie just wanted to be really creative; don't worry about trying to go for a commercial sound,” Fritz responds. “Go for interesting textures and atmospheres. Don't be afraid to experiment. So every time I did a session with live drums, there would be one mic that I would totally experiment with; maybe mess it up with extreme compression, run it into a mic pre and overdrive it — just see what happened. I did that with vocals, too. I'd always have a clean track and a parallel track that I'd process in different ways. That's something I developed working with Tom Waits.”

When I ask Greene how he squares his drive to create a unique-sounding, consciously lo-fi work, with his professed desire to also create a radio-friendly album, he chuckles, and says, “I can't! I guess that's the weirdness of me. Certainly I want to have successful records — who doesn't — but I'm not willing to make anything other than what I want to make it sound like. If this is not considered commercially viable, so be it. But if there's a song on this record that for whatever reason ends up catching the public's attention, I'm totally for it.”

And most likely it will be one of the catchy tunes Greene recorded with Jackshit at Sonora Recorders in L.A., the week after the Mission Bells sessions — the infectious rockin' soul tune “Like a Ball and Chain,” the ethereal album opener, “Shaken,” or the accordion-driven “Love Gone Bad.” “That's a great studio,” Fritz comments, “with a really nice-sounding board [an API], a great-sounding live room, some really good mics. I fell in love with one of their RCA 77 ribbon mics. And obviously those [Jackshit] guys can really play; they have great chemistry.”

Once the tracking sessions were completed, the action shifted to the road, with Greene and Berlin fitting in sessions in between shows on the fall 2007 Phil Lesh tour. “The way the Phil tour works,” Berlin explains, “is he goes to a place and stays four or five days, so I was able, between my schedule and his schedule, to be in those places when Jackie was there. So, for instance, he goes to Chicago for five days and Oz and I show up and we record for four of those five days at CRC [Chicago Recording Company]. The tour goes to New York, and I show up for five or six days. Jackie worked at Brooklyn Recording there. We even did a Phil bass overdub for a song backstage at one of their shows on a [Digidesign] Mbox right before they went onstage in New York. Somehow or another, with this insane workload we were able to put the record together in bits and pieces all over the country.” Additionally, Val McCallum continued recording various guitar parts in L.A. and sending those along to be added to the stew. Then Fritz would compile it all on a master hard drive.

“It was like being in touring mode while recording,” Greene comments, “so when I listen to it there's a certain sense of restlessness, like you're not at home.”

Because of budget limitations, Berlin asked “four of my favorite engineers to do a couple of tracks each for the pittance we had. Much to my delight, they all agreed.” And so Michael Brauer mixed four tunes at Quad in New York City, Tchad Blake did four at his base in Bath, UK, Mike Fraser handled three songs at The Warehouse in Vancouver and Ross Hogarth one track at Boogie Motel in L.A. With Greene and Berlin on separate tours by this time, they had to keep track of the mixes long distance (in Brauer's case they were able to hear some of his mixes in real time through a piece of broadcast software called Nicecast), conferring over the phone or Internet.

But in the end it all came together and Greene says he is thrilled with the final album, which is filled with a typically eclectic mix of Americana styles, plenty of insightful lyrics about the human condition and relationships, and enough strong hooks to make radio programmers happy. Could Giving Up the Ghost be Greene's long-predicted breakthrough? Don't bet against it. But either way, Greene has definitely arrived.

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PLAY: Must Play
Like a Ball and Chain

PLAY: Must Play
Prayer for a Spanish Harlem