The Skull & Roses Festival will return to Southern California’s Ventura County Fairgrounds on April 2-5. As the event’s tagline suggests, Skull & Roses will be “Celebrating The Music and Community of the Grateful Dead.” This year’s lineup includes Billy & The Kids, Oteil & Friends, Voodoo Dead, Grateful Grass, Melvin Seals & JGB, Circles Around the Sun, Midnight North and Moonalice.
Jackie Greene is another artist on the bill and here he shares his connection with the music of the Dead.
I was born on November 27, 1980, Jimi Hendrix’s birthday. I live in Sacramento, that’s where I’m from. I lived in the Bay Area for a while and New York, but we’re back in Sac with our two-year-old daughter Luca—well, she’s almost two, but she’s advanced enough to get into her terrible twos early.
My first musical memory—well, one of the musical memories that has stuck around the longest is I remember being about 12, 13, and I remember seeing the Disney movie Fantasia, and I remember—we had this old, beat-up piano in the house and I remember watching it over and over again and then picking out the melodies of some of those classical pieces and trying to play it on the piano, and doing a pretty good job (laughter) at the time.
I also remember when I was about 14 digging up my parents’ old collection of vinyl records in the basement and putting on Ray Charles records and having a really good time with that. That was sort of a turning point in my mind, you know, I’d never known a piano could be played that way and listening to that stuff was Whoa, it was really a mind-blowing experience and I remember that well. I knew the name Ray Charles, but not—what did I know—I actually remember going to everybody else’s basement and trying to dig up their parents’ record collections.
By the time I got into high school, I probably had a 100 vinyl records, all this weird old shit that nobody cared about at the time. This was before the internet, right, so for me, it felt like I was hoarding some sort of treasure. Nowadays it’s no big deal, you can find whatever you want, it’s all accessible. But back then I felt like I was sort of an explorer discovering things. In a way I really was, for people of my age, I was discovering stuff from the past that had sort of gone by the wayside, at least in the culture that I grew up in. At that time, pop music was about boy bands, that’s what you heard on the radio, you didn’t hear much else.
Piano was my first instrument. I took lessons for a little over a summer. I’d always played by ear—I don’t read music—I mean, I can read it, but you can’t put music in front of me and expect me to get anywhere, but it’s much better to play me something and then I can do it. That’s basically how I operate. I would hear something and then immediately try and go play it. Once I got into the world of blues music and rhythm and blues and old country music, old rock and roll, I went on this journey, so by the time I got into high school I was on this journey to find old music, which for me I guess it was. It just felt like a gold mine of treasures, and I was the only one who knew this stuff.
I think to this day I still model myself a little on Ray Charles, but of course there were other influences. From that I discovered classic rock. It’s funny, because a lot of people, Americans, went from the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and then went backwards, but I kind of did the same thing, but at the same time—my parents had, my father had like Mississippi John Hurt records, Muddy Waters—one side was all scratched up and I couldn’t listen to it—for context, my Mom and my Dad split up when I was young, so a lot of this was like finding out who my Dad was. So that was part of it for me. I remember feeling “This is cool, this is special, this is what he liked so I might like it too.”
And then it wasn’t a far reach to get into classic rock like Cream, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. I’d look at the back of these records and read what I could about who’s Robert Plant and who’s Jimmy Page and I’d find something out about them and they’d talk about Willie Dixon or Muddy Waters and I’d go ‘I know that name’ and I’d go find out about Willie Dixon and oh, he wrote some of these songs. It was kind of this web—it was before the internet but it was this world wide web of information that was much more difficult to get at but I found a way to do it, basically looking at the back of record covers and reading what I could. It wasn’t that long before we did get the internet, I guess in my house it was the mid to late ‘90s, I just spent all my time looking that stuff up, finding out about old blues music, old rock and roll music, the roots of what we now call American pop music.
I had a high school band—we never had a name, that’s how good we were (laughter)—I was really into blues guitar, Eric Clapton. When I was 16, I remember dragging my friends to go see Buddy Guy at Harrah’s, an outdoor concert at Harrah’s in Tahoe. One of our friends could drive. My friend was saying, “Why are you making me go see this?” and I was “Trust me, you’re going to love this.” We were the youngest people there, and I remember thinking, “Man, that’s what I want to do,” watching him onstage just ripping guitar.
When I was 15, I had a substitute teacher, he was a guitar player, and he knew that I played guitar, and he invited me to come play with his band at some local pub. My parents too me down there, and I sat in on “Crossroads,” the Eric Clapton version, and I remember being really really nervous, but in a good way. And from that day on, it was like, “That’s what I want to do.” I wanna play guitar, I want to sing—actually, I didn’t start singing until I was out of high school. I didn’t think I could do it. Piano player and then a guitar player, really. And then I got into the whole thing and didn’t really look back.
After high school, I started playing around and then I started writing songs when I discovered Bob Dylan and then Tom Waits. It was really Tom Waits for me—I was just out of high school and I heard Waits and I realized, these are great songs, and these are really weird (laughter). But at the same time, there’s a lot of blues and a lot of that feeling in there. So I tried singing like him for a while, which was really funny. I started playing coffee shops and open-mic nights right after high school, and I started writing songs, not really knowing how to do it, but just trying to figure it all out.
One of the first gigs I had was at a place called the Time Out Tavern, it was a biker bar, and I wasn’t 21, so they made me go outside on breaks. They gave me $5 an hour or something. And because it was a biker’s bar I played every—I played Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, all the old songs that I knew, and every once in a while I’d sneak in one of my own songs so if nobody got mad, it must mean they were pretty good (laughter). Tuesdays and Thursday nights, from 4 to 7, so it was like happy hour. Looking back, I was so young, and it was a crazy thing to do. But even though it was a small crappy bar, there were great lessons to learn there. How to get an audience’s attention, what you can pull off and what you can’t it was really good for that. A great learning experience. I did the same thing at a place in downtown Sacramento called the Torch Club and I did that for a couple of years, just working on songs. Most of the time I wouldn’t say it was my own song, I’d just wait and see if I got a reaction. Ideally a good reaction (laughter). It’s funny, people kind of think of me as a guitar player but really songwriting is the biggest part of my work, and singing. Nowadays I mostly write songs on the piano, really. Even if they later end up on guitar. I’m not even that great a piano player, but I can use it to figure out what’s in my head, I think.
When I met Phil in 2006, I didn’t know that much about the Grateful Dead. I knew the big stuff, I knew “Truckin’,” I knew “Casey Jones,” stuff like that, but I didn’t really know “Sugaree” or “Dark Star” or “Mission in the Rain” or any of these cool, deeper cuts. Of course I knew the name. I’d actually seen Phil play with Bob Dylan at this big amphitheater in Sacramento. Larry Campbell was in Bob’s band at the time. Years later I met Phil—the way I met him was that I had a song on the radio and he had come to see us at Bonnaroo one year, and people were telling me “Phil’s here to see you,” and I was, “Who’s that?” (Laughter).
Long story short, I didn’t get to meet him then, but he called me out of the blue and asked me if I’d come to his studio and help him write songs for a television show that never got off the ground. I went down, and before I knew it, Larry Campbell showed up, and John Molo showed up, and we were starting to play “Friend of the Devil” or something like that, and Phil said, “This is awesome, let’s go on tour.” And I said OK of course, but then I told him, “Phil, I don’t know very many Grateful Dead songs,” and he said “That’s OK,” and he gave me a waist-high stack of Grateful Dead CDs and I just immersed myself in all this Grateful Dead music. And that’s when I realized that I was really into this, that this is songs, not the common misconception that it’s just a jam band. Yeah, but for me that’s secondary. These songs are fantastic. Oh, that’s where the magic is. I get it. This is like discovering a new Bob Dylan or something like that, that catalogue.
To this day, the thing I love about the Grateful Dead is the songs. You can go down that list and stick them next to Dylan, or the Beatles, or anybody who has catalogues of great songs, it stands right next to it. That’s the thing that really grabbed me, and I said “OK, I think I can do this.” And we rehearsed, and I think Phil recognized it, because I was singing them really fresh, because it was kind of my first time hearing them.
I couldn’t possibly try and do what Jerry was doing in ’77 because I didn’t know it, I’d never heard it, so I had to take an approach that was authentic, because I was really being touched by the songs for the first time. And I think people responded to that, because you could feel it. And I remember—I was so terrified—Phil said to me, “Jackie, I’d like you to sing “Sugaree” tonight,” and I was, “Phil I’ve never heard that song.” “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” To this day, it’s one of my favorite songs, but the first couple of times, I was terrified. But Phil sensed some kind of bravery in me maybe, and I think that worked. It was such a great thing for me to be a part of that and to learn so much, just about performance, and how things can work in a live setting.
So fast forward to today, and I’m a Deadhead like everybody else.
Working with Phil was amazing. I remember, god bless her heart, a woman who used to work with Phil named Kathy [Sunderland, who alas passed from cancer in 2013]. When we first went out, she terrified me. It was like I was her nephew. She said, “Now Jackie, don’t ever let your drink down. Somebody might dose it.” I was thinking, “No, nobody would do that”—she was just fucking with me. And I remember pulling into the parking lot of the first show and there were all these people with tie-dyes for sale and it was all stuff I’d never seen before, and I was just telling myself, “This is amazing. This is unbelievable. What band has fans like this?”
It really became obvious when we did a tour with Levon Helm and we were in Columbus, Ohio, in an outdoor amphitheatre, and this horrible storm blew up, the rain was coming in sideways, and Levon had to stop playing. All the gear got wet, and we didn’t think we were going to be able to play. They cleared out the amphitheatre and after two hours, it dried up, we went on stage with minimal gear and all the people came back inside, they’d waited for the storm to pass. And we had a great show. I was thinking to myself that there was no other band in the world that would be willing to wait in the rain like for three hours. That’s something special. And I thought, it’s the songs, man, there’s magic in there. And people want that magic. I’d never seen anything like it, and from that day on, I knew, “I get it. This is heavy. Playing Grateful Dead songs is such a blessing. I just plain like it. I’m happy to be a part of it. I’m just glad I became aware of it before I’m like (laughter) too old.
So at Ventura, I’ll be doing two sets. One with my own band, and then one with Steve Kimock and Voodoo Dead. I can’t tell you who’s going to be in my band, because I have some cats from Nashville and I have some from Sacramento, all of whom I’ve played with many times, but I have to figure out what the tour looks like to figure out what the band’s going to look like. My set, the Jackie Greene band, we’ll play stuff that I won’t be playing with Voodoo Dead the next day, so no repeats. I’ve played with Steve in Voodoo Dead a bunch, and I mean, talking about guitar players, he’s a monster. I love playing with him. Really looking forward to the weekend.