Mr. Almost Big

Times Staff Writer

There’s a song on Jackie Greene’s new album, “Giving Up the Ghost,” that sounds like an outright dismissal of the first commandment of rock ‘n’ roll -- that music can change the world. In “I Don’t Live in a Dream,” the Bay Area singer and songwriter, considered by some an heir to the Gram Parsons roots-rock maverick tradition, confesses, “I don’t live on the moon . . . I don’t live in some land forgotten . . . I don’t pretend to make the world feel better . . . I walk the same Earth you do, I live right here with you.”

It’s a reflection of the way the 27-year-old musician has come to see himself. He’s more a regular Joe than the Next Big Thing in pop music, something that’s been predicted for him routinely for at least five years.

“I think every record I’ve put out there’s been somebody who’s said, ‘This is it -- this is the one!’ After a while you stop listening and just do what you do,” said Greene, positively radiating rock-star cool backstage at the Greek Theatre recently before a performance in his side gig as lead singer in Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s touring band.


“It’s far too easy to be let down,” he said, sitting in a bunker-like room behind the stage, “and that’s not what it’s about anyway. Whether this album does well or [not], I’ll make another one. It’s exciting when there’s a buzz, and that helps the shows sell out. But it’s not the final word on the record.”

Nor, for that matter, on a latent rock star. Greene seems quite content to continue, for the time being, living the life of a critic’s darling with a devoted cult following.

After the release of “Giving Up the Ghost,” which he co-produced with Los Lobos member Steve Berlin (who also produced Greene’s 2006 album “American Myth”), Greene spent most of April touring clubs with his own band. He’s scheduled to appear on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” Tuesday.

Last month, he resumed his role in Lesh’s Dead-heavy four-hour marathon concerts. Lesh discovered Greene’s music on the radio and was sufficiently motivated to track him down.

It’s an unlikely gig even for this classic-rock omnivore.

“I have a lot of different influences,” he said, “but to be honest, the Grateful Dead wasn’t one of them. Since I’ve started learning these songs a lot, I’ve fallen in love with a great many of them.

“In a sense, that helps make them new again,” he said. “I’m out there in front of thousands of people singing these songs and I’m probably the one who knows them the least,” he said with an easy laugh. “It’s scary, and daunting, but it’s also new, and that’s exciting.”

His own music covers a lot of ground, from the Coldplay-with-a twang of the single “Shaken” to the Neil Young & Crazy Horse rock grandeur of “Animal” to the country soul of “Don’t Let the Devil Take Your Mind.” “Another Love Gone Bad” comes off like a lost Dead track.

His soft-edged tenor can evince spiritual elegy or ramp up to a rock growl, and as a lyricist Greene isn’t afraid to evoke mythic America. In the new “Uphill Mountain,” he drops powerful names, real and fictional, in an ode to honoring one’s noble predecessors and their ideals:

Tell John Henry and Cassius Clay

Swinging iron for a living is a hell of a way

But whatever you do, don’t let your hammer stray

And I believe we’ll be just fine

His songwriting acumen has earned him a place alongside such celebrated contemporaries as Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Jack White. (“Follow You” from the new album has enough unbridled blues-rock energy to fit in nicely on a White Stripes record.) And he’s not one of those indie rockers to whom the thought of a hit record equals “sellout.”

“Who wouldn’t want one -- why lie about it?” he said. “I’m not interested in trying to manufacture a hit, but yes, it’s something I do want.”

Born in Salinas, Calif., Greene grew up in Cameron Park, east of Sacramento, one of four kids in his family. As a bored 14-year-old with no TV, he wandered down into the basement of his parents’ house and discovered his parents’ vinyl LPs. The first one he put on was “The Genius of Ray Charles,” an album about which he says, “I can’t get over it to this day.”

As much as he loves hearing -- and making -- records, it’s playing in front of audiences that Greene seems to crave most.

“In my opinion, the best way to experience music is live -- I think that’s music in its most pure form,” he said. “People will talk about a certain record being the definitive performance of a song, but I disagree. I think the live performance on any given night is the definitive version. That’s one of the things that makes music really cool.”

At one time, as he delved further and further into the music and culture of his parents’ generation -- his father is Scandinavian, his mother Japanese -- Greene thought it necessary to experience all facets of that culture. He started dropping acid until a bad trip persuaded him to get off that road fast.

Now, the more he plays, whether with his band or Lesh’s, while also trying to squeeze in recording sessions on days off, the more he finds he’s “learning to take better care” of himself, although he still periodically lights up a cigarette.

“It starts off as fun, but then it does feel like work. Sometimes, I get so worn out. So I don’t drink so much, and I drink lots of water and try to get lots of sleep. . . . There are certain times I do feel like a rock ‘n’ roll athlete -- it feels good when you come off stage and realize, ‘We did that for a long time.’ Ryan Adams came out and joined us for a show recently, and that one turned out to be six hours long.”

He has impressed those around him with his passion, commitment and reliability, qualities that don’t always go hand in hand with rock stardom.

Friend and musician Tim Bluhm, of San Francisco’s the Mother Hips, recently told an interviewer, “He is probably the most dedicated musician I have ever met. He lives and breathes music and probably dreams about it when he sleeps, which isn’t often.”

Marty DeAnda, his manager of five years, said, “All the things that are happening right now are because he has such a great work ethic. If anybody can pull this off, he can.”