Like Old Times: Jackie Greene at Levon Helm’s, Woodstock, NY
For more than a decade — not long after he put together the money to make his first record, Rusty Nails (2003), at 23 — I’ve been listening to Jackie Greene. We met in the summer of 2008, when he was traveling with Phil Lesh and Friends, and they did a show together with the Levon Helm Band at Jones Beach. At the break after Phil and Friends’ first set, I saw Jackie relaxing with a friend backstage, looking entirely unruffled by having just blazed his way through a superb “Sugar Magnolia.” I introduced myself and we spoke for awhile, then I left him with a compliment: “Jackie, you really played the hell out of ‘Sugar Magnolia.'” With an angel face, looking like a kid, he beamed up at me, and said, very politely, “May I please have a fucking hell?” “Yes, you may,” I corrected myself.
It’s been a pleasure to see him, mostly on the road, in the years since — and even more a pleasure when he comes to his second home, far from California but clearly close to his heart: Woodstock, New York. Greene has played in town often, but the venue he loves best is where he chose to launch his new album, Back To Birth (YepRoc), last Friday night: Levon Helm Studios, 160 Plochmann Lane.
Watch the trailer for “Back To Birth” here:
“The Barn” was full of old friends — the Helmland staff of long time, with Barbara O’Brien welcoming guests, and birthday gal Geanine Kane manning the busy merchandise counter. Greene’s new record was available on CD and vinyl, and sales were beyond brisk. The audience was a mix of diehard Greene fans who knew every word to the old songs, local Woodstockers who love good music, and Deadheads; most folks seemed to fall into all three categories, I was happy to see. It had been billed as a solo acoustic evening, but, delightfully, Jabe Beyer joined Greene for an evening of old and new.
Affably, Greene invited us to call out requests, and was instantly beseiged. Amid an initial guitar set featuring songs from Back to Birth, he complied early on with people who wanted “Georgia,” his early hit ballad of a bad, bad girl who’ll rock your world. His “New Speedway Boogie,” sweet and simple and strummed, was joyful, with every soul under Levon’s roof joining in right in time, and in fine tune, on every “mountain” and “one way or another.” Tagged at the start of his career with the praising and damning title of “The New Dylan,” Greene has a sense of humor about it. He hasn’t given up his harp rack and acoustic guitar, and, from the tracks he played at the launch, his new album sounds to have some kinship with the Bob of his Woodstock days. Laughing that now, yes, he’d do “a little Dylan,” Greene and Beyer performed a sexy cover of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” “Someday, I want to live here,” Greene announced, to applause. “No,” he insisted, pointing down at the Barn floor and its battered Oriental carpet on the stage, now duct taped in places. “I mean here. RIGHT here. One time I spent the night up there,” he waved at the loft above the area behind the stage. “It’s very cozy.”
“Silver Lining,” from Back to Birth:
When Greene shifted over to the piano, he shone even brighter. His fame has come from his guitar playing, with the likes of Phil and Friends, Larry Campbell, the Black Crowes, and Warren Haynes and Government Mule, but Greene is a jazz pianist at heart, with a little boogie-woogie stirred in. He riffed happily as Beyer kept up gracefully, teasing Dead fans who kept asking for “Brokedown Palace.” Instead, he launched into Tom Petty’s “Breakdown.” General laughter and a sing-along ensued. After the first verse, he stopped, and said, “That’s all I know.” Greene then played “Shaken,” from his 2009 Giving Up the Ghost; and his new song “Hallelujah.” It takes guts to write a song of your own and dub it “Hallelujah” today, and Greene’s song is lovely. He ended the night with the title track from Back to Birth.
It was just after 10 p.m., and no one left. Downstairs, the line to buy Greene’s record was out the side door and into the mosquito-filled, cool night. Bowls and platters on the potluck food table were empty. People chatted, greeted friends from Rambles past, and waited for Greene to come out and sign — which, almost instantly, he did. He will be back at The Barn at the end of September, but I’m sorry to tell you the gig is already sold out. Better luck next time, for there will be a next time.
Hear more of “Back To Birth” at JackieGreene.com
photographs via @thejackiegreene on Instagram