Singer-songwriter Jackie Greene’s new tunes are comfortable without being lazy — this is a musician who flourishes in a more relaxed environment.
By Scott McLennan
On his breakout album Gone Wanderin’, Jackie Greene sings that “sometimes you don’t recognize your own face in the mirror.”
That was back in 2002. These days, though, the mirror shows something else.
On Back to Birth, the record Greene put out last month, you’ll hear him on “A Face in the Crowd” reflecting on his relationship with his father and singing, “Every time I look in the mirror, I see you standing there.”
It’s a simple line, but still an apt representation of how Greene has matured and capable of circling back on topics and scenarios with new perspective.
“It’s almost a return to the style I started with, but as a more mature person,” Greene said when reached by phone last month. “It’s an older version of self.”
Interpret that as “more assured version of self.” His new songs are comfortable without being lazy, and Greene flourishes in a more relaxed environment.
Back when Greene was the early 2000s version Next-He-Who-Must-Be-Named-In-Every-Story-About-The-Newport-Folk-Festival, he flirted with the expectation, casting a few cryptic, brooding lyrics amid his more open-hearted folk rock, and hammering away on acoustic guitar spiced with reedy harmonica as if he had to prove himself to the ghosts of Greenwich Village.
But fortunately, Greene did not give into the hype and took a wending career path aimed at finding his own voice, which turns out to be quite broad.
He’s made six records since Gone Wanderin’ (and put out a collection of early demos cut in 2001). Greene uses traditional folk and blues as a road map, but does not confine his music to museum-quality re-enactments, instead putting a modern shine on the material, or stretching it out for extended exploration.
It’s been five years since Greene released an album under his own name, but don’t think for a minute that he’s been idle. Greene routinely joined in the revolving cast of players that accompany Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh on his Phil and Friends excursions. And Greene toured with the last iteration of the Black Crowes, playing guitar and adding vocal power.
Then there were the shorter-lived alliances, such as a trio with the Dead’s Bob Weir and Crowes’ Chris Robinson, and sit-ins with San Francisco guitar god Steve Kimock in tributes to Jerry Garcia performed In Chicago around the Grateful Dead’s farewell performances.
And for the past couple of years Greene belonged to Trigger Hippy, a band that also corralled singer Joan Osborne and was founded by Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman.
But Greene is now solely focusing on his own band, which comes to Brighton Music Hall on Sunday (Sept. 20) “I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities, and I still enjoy doing that kind of stuff. But this is my focus now, and it’s been a long time coming,” he said.
Los Lobos member Steve Berlin produced Back to Birth, and Greene said that he and Berlin approached the album with the idea of keeping things simple. The melodic hooks surface freely, making Back to Birth and its assortment of road tales, personal reflections and rogue musings all pretty accessible.
“In my 20s, I was too cool to be this straightforward,” said Greene, now 34 years old. “Now, I’m not ashamed to say I like the Eagles.”
Fortunately, Greene’s music still has more grit than gloss, so even the most buoyant tracks on the new album — ”Trust Somebody,” “Motorhome” come to mind — have coarse and boozy patches that just seem to be part of Greene’s musical DNA.
Greene may have stripped away some of the masking layers applied to earlier records, but Back to Birth has plenty of depth and sincerity.
“I’ve has personal songs on my other records, but usually clouded them on purpose,” he said. “On this one, everything is staring you in the face. Things happen in your life, and music becomes a coping mechanism. Songs are good therapy if you need it.”
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene