Jackie Greene: Higher Ground, So. Burlington VT 10.13.11

Jackie Greene deserves to be playing in bigger venues than Higher Ground’s Showcase Lounge,  but his level of comparatively limited visibility isn’t all that surprising – he’s taken a judicious approach to making the most of his big break fronting Phil Lesh & Friends from 2007 to 2009. He’s toured as an opener for comrades like Gov’t Mule as well as hosting like-minded acts such as this night’s Truth & Salvage Company.

Greene’s decision is paying off too though, not necessarily in terms of celebrity.  Instead, Jackie continues to make progress in subtle ways as a musician and a performer. For one thing, he no longer has to rely on the heartiest acclamations coming at the intro of Grateful Dead songs. Such response comes as regularly and loudly from those in front of the stage when they hear his own songs like “I’m So Gone.” Unless of course there’s recognition of a guest like Phish’s Mike Gordon coming on stage to play “Sugaree” near the end of the evening.

Jackie and his band picked right up where they left off from last year’s autumn appearance in Vermont, eschewing an acoustic opening, but weaving ‘wooden ’textures in and out of the music throughout the two sets. Moving from multiple electric guitars to an acoustic six-string, then to banjo through the course of the evening, Greene exemplified the best of what’s called Americana music.  At the same time, he demonstrated why such labels are arbitrary and unenlightening: rock and roll defines itself when the musicians play with the combination of intensity, focus and patience that emanated from the stage.

Watching this precocious young man play in this small room in front of fifty or so people,has to compel other thoughts of appearances in much larger venues. As self-assured as his band has become,Jackie Greene radiates a quiet cockiness beneath his ever-present straw hat and long-haired, bearded countenance. The charisma of a rock star permeates his stage presence, so that, when he lifts the neck of his guitar, whether in rhythm on an acoustic or during a succinct solo on an electric, it’s not for any contrived attempt at theater, but to get the sound he’s looking for from the instrument. The drama arises naturally from his musicianship.  Yet there remains a modest air around Greene: his low-key expression of thanks to those attending sounded wholly earnest.  There might’ve been a few in the house just out of curiosity, but a much higher percentage was there in devotion to the artist.

And they were paid back in dividends too, particularly if they’d been to previous shows of Jackie and his band the last couple years. In contrast to appearances where they looked and sounded like a frontman and some sidemen, Jackie Greene and his quartet have tightened up tremendously.  Bassist Jeremy Ploog’s playing constantly prods the melody players even as he firms up the steady foundation he’s erected for them with drummer Zack Patton. Guitarist Nathan Dale plays with a fluidity that contrasts nicely with the more crisp style of Greene, a distinction most evident on the cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha,” one of the few instances where the quartet stretched out more than a little.

This stripped down format doesn’t replicate the lush likes of Greene’s studio albums, but it does allow the the band to exhibit its cohesiveness on “Don’t Let the Devil Take Your Mind" and “Animal.”  And when such originals are played live, it’s clear how the melodies reinforce the lyrics and vice versa, while Jackie’s own delivery further supports the character of material. He’s virtually transcended his influences at this point in his career.

That said, early in the second set, the group ventured into Booker T & The MG’s territory. With Jackie on Hammond B3 organ, Ploog and Dale switching instruments and no vocals, this was the sound of musicians in touch with their (R&B) roots and expressing the joy of playing live in ways no one might expect. It was an especially pleasant interlude in a performance that would satisfy any fan of Jackie Greene and sufficiently surprise anyone else they’d be convinced to see him again.

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