When Phil Lesh announced a largely new group of Friends to succeed previous aggregations populated by the high-profile likes of John Scofield, members of Phish, and Derek Trucks, no doubt more than a few wondered who Jackie Greene was. The young native Californian may have at first seemed the wild card in the band, but chance encounters with Lesh on the road led to the recruitment of the young musician/songwriter to fill what was essentially the frontman role for the group.
Still, as much Greene’s galvanizing performances in 2007 and 2008 were a testament to his precocious pedigree based on a growing body of studio and live work, two decades of hindsight suggests Lesh’s confidence in Greene was unintentionally uncanny: the multi-instrumentalist and songwriter was peaking right at this time.
Songs from Jackie’s solo albums regularly populated Phil & Friends’ setlists and selections from his sophomore work, Gone Wanderin’ (released 11/19/02), were among those choices. And now that very /album title has proven prophetic in more ways than one: while Greene’s big break led to work including opening slots for Gov’t Mule with his own group and joining The Black Crowes as guitarist/vocalist for a 2013 tour, the native Californian’s subsequent work under his own name (he was born Christopher Nelson) suffers in comparison.
In fact, notwithstanding the greater craftsmanship of its successors, Jackie Greene may have never made a record better than this first one for Dig Music. Certainly, he wears his influences on his sleeves for a tune like “Tell Me Mama Tell Me Right,” but his obviously derivative take on Western Swing is as affectionate as it is effervescent. In fact, it’s Greene’s absolute lack of self-consciousness here that so elevates this work. And he certainly doesn’t sing “Freeport Boulevard ” like he carries any illusions about his connection to the blues style of the number, but his sense of discovery as it pervades his vocal delivery sets the stage for Lloyd Billingsley’s turn honking the sax.
“Down In The Valley Woe” also bespeaks Jackie’s debt to early Dylan, but it’s more than just the wailing harmonica, it’s the strumming of the acoustic guitar as vigorous as the wordplay of the lyrics. In fact, it’s the great pleasure Greene takes in playing and singing, whether solo –hear the quiet “Gracie”–or in collaboration with his other accompanists here that renders the record such a winning listen.
It’s a joy all around to hear this kind of effervescent camaraderie, so much so it hardly matters “Judgment Day” sounds like a rewrite of the title song. There’s no question Jackie Green repeats himself more than once on Gone Wanderin ‘, but his charm proves irresistible as he does so. As a result, the raucous take on “Messin With The Kid,” included as a bonus live track on some CD editions of this 2002 album, reaffirms those virtues.
2019’s Live From Throckmorton Theatre documents how those attributes continue to stand Greene in good stead during the spontaneity of the moment on stage. But even though the hallmarks distinguishing Gone Wanderin’ remained largely in place on its successors, 2004’s Sweet Somewhere Bound and American Myth two years later (produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin), the distinctions dissipated markedly on his later studio work. Giving Up The Ghost and Back to Birth, for example, sound equal parts studied and overworked, careful to a fault in a way that Jackie Greene’s decidedly uninhibited twenty-year-old album most definitely does not.