Jackie Greene has always reminded me of the Mellencamp song “Jackie Brown.” When Greene named his new disc American Myth, it became downright difficult to separate this young Californian from the … yes, call them American myths — that he and his music bring to mind.
The Dylan comparisons that came with his early reviews a few years back … they’ve faded by now (don’t they always?). And likeness to Mellencamp will only occur with select songs, because Jackie Greene isn’t striving to make his songs into pop theater. Not even heartland dinner-theater. Instead, you get lyrics and guitar-based hooks that aren’t compressed to pander to MTV (or even VH1). Moments on American Myth that stick with you might be the drawling-but-sweet harmonica on “Just As Well.” Or any number of rough edges that Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin left in the production. Or horn charts that punch with a velvet touch.
As Greene gets ready to come to town (scheduled to be in twice this month — once this Friday night opening for Marah, and on June 28 he headlines the next WFPK Waterfront Wednesday free show), LEO asked him what he thinks of the acclaim for a way-ahead-of-his-years maturity in his latest songwriting. He wouldn’t own up to seeing different song-material topics or perspectives: “It’s hard for me to say because I feel differently now. That’s difficult for me to quantify. As far as material … for some reason, you find a new way to cover it.” But he also wasn’t ready to say that he’s the beneficiary of more experience with songwriting technique: “I think there is no ‘technically’ when it comes to songwriting. If it’s magical, you should just leave it. I don’t feel I’ve gotten better — but I probably have.”
This week’s appearance has Greene in a support slot on the bill at Headliners. At this point in his career, he splits dates between being opener and having top-billing. “It’s always different being the opener. There’s the pressure to win over the audience, who’ve come for the main act. When you’re the headliner … well, in certain circles, there’s the feeling you can just wank. But I feel like I want to have more pressure. I like it.”
The ensemble Greene’s bringing in is “two guitars, bass and drums. I’ll switch off between keyboards and guitar. And everybody sings.” He says that the musicians cut loose a little bit because they’re trying to re-create the vibe of the record with limited instrumentation.
That vibe is very fresh even in the well-populated Americana musical genre. Greene naturally steps up as a confident rocker (the Ryan Adams-esque “Hollywood”), but the new album has a high proportion of acoustic-based tracks. These aren’t just token ballads — they represent a determined shift from the typical Triple-A setlist. Greene pulls the folk underpinnings out of “Love Song; 2:00 AM” until all that’s left is a romantic trying to find a lullaby that works for adults. Whatever new styles he comes up with, however, Greene is going to be associated with Americana for the time being. Just as indicated by his music on disc, the Californian sounds subtly ruffled at any attempt to pin him down so precisely: “Most record stores have the ‘Rock’ section, and that’s where you’ll find me. It’s kind of a big category — I mean, it’s got everything from psychobilly to trip-hop. I don’t even know what that stuff is! But rock is American music; we invented it. You could say that Ray Charles is a rock singer, even. … But you won’t find me in the jazz section.”
The Marah/Jackie Greene show might seem to be the middle stuff of an unusual sandwich this week, as Headliners’ calendar has them surrounded by alterna-rap acts Atmosphere (see Staff Picks) and Blackalicious (Thursday night, with Code Red, Aria Silenced and III). Last year’s album The Craft showed the California duo have become reliable veterans at delivering positive-tipping messages in a variety of formats. Whether backed by guitars and guest stars, or Chief Xcel’s haunting on-stage production selections, the settings are often lit up like a perfect landing strip for Gift of Gab to find his way home.
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