It had been a long time coming for some San Diego music fans: a rock ‘n’ roll show in a spacious venue in the city’s hippest neighborhood. The city has sadly been venue-challenged for years. Most shows either take place 25 miles up the coast at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, downtown at the cramped House of Blues with its poor acoustics and non-fan-friendly policies, or at tiny clubs like the Casbah or Soda Bar that can barely handle 100 people. But now, the North Park Observatory seemed poised to save the day and just in time for a Saturday night show with San Francisco rocker Jackie Greene.
There was one disturbing flaw, however. As fans entered eager to grab a drink and rock out, they soon discovered that the venue had a problem similar to the House of Blues. Adult beverages were only allowed in the separate bar area, and that bar was incomprehensibly blasting pop music instead of the sound from the main stage. It boggled the mind, although investigation soon revealed an alleged recent liquor license issue in the theater due to the re-arranging of some seating areas. Fans remain hopeful that the new North Park Observatory will soon work out the kinks, because it has all the other factors to become the city’s best music venue by far.
The theater in the heart of the city’s thriving North Park district features a wide and ramped dance floor for great views all around, a big improvement from the Belly Up’s tiny dance floor and obstructed views. There are also air-conditioned floor vents to keep things cool and crystal clear sound all around. This was apparent early on in the show as Greene and his quartet launched into a hot rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” that ignited the evening. A Dead song or two in the set has become obligatory for Greene ever since former GD bassist Phil Lesh plucked Greene out of obscurity in 2007 to join his band for a year on the “Golden Road”. This was no perfunctory version, either: Greene led the band through a dynamic jam with his own lead guitar skills driving the beloved psychedelic anthem to blissful peaks.
Some in the notoriously finicky Deadhead community doubted Greene’s credentials for the high profile gig in Phil Lesh & Friends, but Lesh’s eye for talent was on the mark again. Greene won over more and more fans as that year went by with his combination of vocal and guitar talents, delivering an impressive mix of blues, rock, and Americana skills. By the time the band rolled into San Francisco’s Warfield Theater for a five night run in May of 2008, Greene was helping to deliver some of the top shows of the decade. The band treated the Warfield like it was closing permanently, instead of merely shutting down temporarily for a makeover.
Greene defied expectations again when he was tapped to join the Black Crowes on lead guitar in 2013. He’d proven himself as a singer and rhythm guitarist, but most lead guitar duties when he was in Lesh’s band were handled by Larry Campbell. Greene silenced the skeptics again by stepping up with the melty lead guitar riffage expected from the Crowes, demonstrating that he had been working up his chops over the years. Just when you think you know what Greene is all about, he branches out again.
The North Park show featured a mix of tunes from Greene’s career, with several strong new songs complimenting his more well-known material. He also showed his multi-dimensional instrumental skills by switching between electric guitar, acoustic guitar with harmonica and keyboards. A new tune that referenced a freight train running down the tracks had a bluesy melodic twang that hit the mark. Greene went Dylan-style with harmonica and acoustic guitar on “Gone Wandering”, a bluesy rocker that sort of encapsulates his overall vibe. Greene won’t be pigeonholed and his adventurous muse seems to appeal to a wider audience each year.
“I Was Born an Animal” was another standout tune, mixing an edgy blues vibe with sonic spacing that gave Greene’s impassioned vocals room to breathe. He started the tune on acoustic guitar before switching to electric to rip a hot solo that propelled the jam to lofty heights. He was back on organ for “Shaken”, a heartfelt ode at least in part to the lure of the Golden State, as well as searching to find one’s way. California has long been famous as a place for such soul-searching, even in these times of skyrocketing rents, so the song tapped into the zeitgeist nicely. A charged rendition of “Til the Light Comes” closed out the set, with the band gelling for a crowd-pleasing jam that featured the hard rocking guitars.
A “Sugaree” encore then dipped back into the Grateful Dead songbook to send the crowd out into the night with a familiar jam. Was it really only 10:30 PM? The set may have only been a standard 90 minutes, but it was a tour de force of Greene’s wide-ranging talents. The beauty at the end was that fans were now located in one of the best bar scenes in California, where further libations beckoned in each direction.