Featured Interview – Alastair Greene

imageThroughout life, we are constantly reminded good things come to those who work hard, play fair, and remain persistent in the face of the inevitable adversities. There is also the message that the key to happiness is an appreciation and thankfulness for what you have. For guitarist Alastair Greene, the philosophy of simply saying “yes” whenever new opportunities present themselves has been a key to making progress throughout his career.

Like a lot of youngsters, Greene started out on piano. “ Growing up, I knew that I wanted to play music. But I didn’t listen to much piano or saxophone stuff. Piano lessons are usually the first thing parents typically ask their child about, or not. Maybe the kid doesn’t have a choice! The saxophone came as a result of going to school at the start of the day and going to the cafeteria, where they would have all of theses instruments laid out. You got to pick what you wanted to play. I think it was in fourth grade that I picked the sax. Because of that, I learned how to read music, and played the sax for eleven years. I only played piano for a couple of years. I never really listened to jazz records or rock bands that had horns, even though I was into rock & roll”.

“I didn’t feel the pull towards playing anything close to the kind of music I was actually listening to until I was in junior high, at which point I started playing bass. After about a year and a half, I figured I might as well play guitar, which I did during my freshman year of high school. I was enjoying playing music all along, but guitar allowed me to emulate the music that I was actually listening to at that time, which was the hard rock of that era. On piano and sax, I didn’t really have a chance to play with other people outside of the fifth grade band at school. But the guitar allowed me to play with other like-minded kids, to begin creating music of our own. That was one of the light bulb moments that I have had over the years”.

Forming a band with some friends, Greene started playing live shows during his junior year of high school. The next year found them leaving Santa Barbara, trying to break their hard rock act in clubs in the Hollywood, CA area. Then a friend of his father loaned Greene some records to listen to, including the classic B.B. King Live At The Regal plus records by Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, the Allman Brothers Band, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“Those albums were a great introduction to a cross-section of music. I had been taking guitar lessons, and my instructor gave me a cassette tape, that I still have, telling me that if I wanted to play rock & roll, I needed to learn some of the songs on the tape. It included Freddie King doing “Hideaway,” a couple from Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Cream, and the Ventures. But the real mind-blower was getting the albums to listen to, which connected all the dots for me guitar-wise”

“My favorite hard rock or heavy metal guitar players at that time had some connection to blues rock. So the players I was gravitating to had been influenced by Johnny Winter, Rory Gallagher, and Eric Clapton from the Cream era. Hearing B.B., Johnny, Buddy, and Stevie Ray, it all made sense as that was what I was enjoying in the players I was listening to at the time. One was Eddie Van Halen, who you really couldn’t escape if you were a guitar player growing up in the 1980 decade. Another one was Jake E. Lee, who played on a couple of Ozzy Osbourne records. Then he started his own band, Badlands, that sounded something like Led Zeppelin. He was a huge inspiration, as was Vivian Campbell, who was in Dio and Whitesnake, and now plays with Def Leppard. He was considered a virtuoso guitar player in the day. That was where I heard about Rory Gallagher, because Vivian was also from Ireland and mentioned Rory in an interview”.

The story gets even more interesting as Greene transitions from playing hard rock in bands with friends to studying at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston after his high school graduation. “ I was playing guitar in the high school jazz band, even though I was not a very competent jazz player. My chordal knowledge was pretty limited but I could fake my way around to some extent. A good friend of mine was playing bass in the band. Typically in those bands they have the better guitar players on bass guitar. He was very knowledgeable in jazz, so I got help from him. At one point, we did a jazz band competition in Orlando at Disney World. There was a representative from Berklee there, a guy who was handing out some scholarships. I guess I played something cool in one of my solos because I was awarded one of the scholarships”.

“It was one of those times when the stars were aligned, so I figured I should go to music school. It was a partial scholarship, so my grandmother put some money away, and I did a year at City College in Santa Barbara before moving to Boston. I did the Berklee thing for two years before heading back home. I did not graduate. I had come to the realization that while a degree in music was cool, and could help secure a job at a university or teaching, my goal was to be writing songs and performing in bands. I felt Berklee had given me a solid base of knowledge, but the real experience was going to come from playing gigs with a lot of different musicians. It came down to staying there for another couple of years figuring out how to construct jazz tunes with all of those expensive chords, or I could just start playing in bands. I opted to get back to playing”.

image“While at Berklee, I was exposed to a lot of advanced music. I got to see acts like Frank Zappa and the Dixie Dregs. As I was just getting into blues music, which was really in the forefront of my consciousness, one cool thing that occurred was I got to hear Ronnie Earl play. He came to the school to do a clinic, or a master class. Another was that I went to see Albert Collins in a club outside the city, with my fake ID in hand! No one wanted to go with me, but a friend had just turned twenty-one, so he gave me his ID. I got on the train and off I went to the outskirts of Boston, where I saw Albert and Lonnie Mack opening the show. I think this was around 1991. I tried to seek out those kinds of shows while at Berklee. Had I been a bit more knowledgeable, I’m sure I would have been able to find a lot more”.

Returning home, Greene connected with a friend of his dad’s, drummer Tom Lackner, who was a member of the Pontiacs at that time, led by harmonica ace Mitch Kashmar. “I called Tom and told him I was looking to do stuff, into the blues. He invited me to come see the band and possibly sit in with them. So it was a typical story that this kid, although I was twenty-one at the time, was showing up at the gigs wanting to learn about the music from guys that were ten-plus years older than me. Then I met a singer and we formed a blues/rock band. It was hard at that time, and even still today, to find players dedicated to just blues, so you often may have to compromise your musical vision. That first band lead to another band, where I started singing. And that took me to the point where I started a band under my own name in 1997, with Tom on drums and Jack Kennedy, also from the Pontiacs, on bass. I was out of my mind excited that I was doing my first blues/rock trio with these two guys I had been idolizing because they had been out there playing the real shit with Mitch and some great guitar players”.

“We played a lot locally and regionally, got some cool gigs opening for the Fabulous Thunderbirds of the Kid Ramos era a couple times, plus John Mayall, Lonnie Brooks, and Robin Trower. But we never did much touring because the other guys had already been out there doing it. We played a lot but I had to have some day jobs because I wasn’t able to make ends meet with just music. We recorded my first record in 2000, which was the culmination of me getting my chops together in those early years. It was a self-release entitled A Little Wiser, with Mitch guesting on a couple tracks. It was blues/rock with a slow blues and we rocked out a Muddy Waters cover. It is now out-of-print”.

By 2008, Greene had some younger band members and started getting out of town, heading to the Central Valley and the Bay area, sticking to the West Coast. “I was playing in lots of other bands, including an R&B-funk-Latin band plus some other blues bands. I basically said yes to any opportunity that came up. You learn the way of the mercenary. There were a couple of bands where I was the regular guy, other bands where I was the sub, and I would do projects with artists. My rule was to just say “yes” if someone calls to have you play guitar, because you never know where it is going to lead you. So I played with an Americana-country artist, an Americana jam band and several blues singers”.

“I had always wanted to make music my sole source of income. But in southern California, or maybe anywhere else, that is easier said than done. But the stars finally aligned when I was working at a music venue in the ticket office. When the season is over, they let you go. So I went on unemployment. At that point, a friend of mine was giving up some of his guitar students. I had done some teaching off and on, so I gave lessons at a local music store. With the gigs I was doing with the band, I was able to segue out of working for anybody else, which I was able to do in 2006. As teacher, I tried to get the students to have fun, and to play things that would inspire them to want to practice. Then, whether it is a Green Day song or a Beatles tune, you have to work hard at it if you really want to get it. There aren’t many people that just pick up a guitar and are naturally able to play it”.

That rule about simply saying “yes” came into play in a big way a bit further down the road. “In late 2000, I had hooked up with a radio DJ in town on the big classic rock station. He had an Americana band that also did country and wanted me to do some guitar overdubs on the recording he was working on, and do some live shows. He was recording in a home studio, owned by Alan Parsons. My friend had met Alan at some charity event after Alan moved to the area, and they had hit it off. Alan popped into the studio, we met, and he got to hear me play. He asked me for my phone number at the end of the session, and a year later, he called to ask me to play on his record. That record, A Valid Path, came out in 2004. Until recently, that was Alan’s last studio recording.”.

image“In 2009, when his guitar player then, Godfrey Townsend, had a scheduling conflict, Alan asked me to sub for Godfrey on a West coast tour. This was a major thing, because even though I had been playing in a lot of bands, it meant I had to move my playing up several levels, jumping a few steps. I did the tour and all was well. At the end of the year, Parsons decide he wanted to revamp his band, as band leaders will sometimes do. Early in the new year, he offered me the guitar position in the Alan Parson’s Project. It was a steep learning curve. I had played a handful of big shows, opening for touring bands. But this was a different level. Also, Alan’s music wasn’t something I grew up listening to, so I had to dive in to learn it. It wasn’t natural, but I did grow to appreciate it. You have to perform the songs the way people are expecting to hear them. You don’t just jam out, calling for a blues in A. The songs are crafted and you tend to play the solo that is on the record. It got me out touring the world, playing giant shows. That was a lot of fun”.

Still, Greene wasn’t playing music that was close to his heart. As time went on, the gig slowly became more of a job. “His touring schedule wasn’t so crazy busy. There was time for me to do my band, and I did release a couple more albums during that period. But I couldn’t book anything that far out in advance. Sometimes I would have to cancel shows because Alan’s stuff took precedence. I made the decision to leave for a variety of reasons. One telling point that let me know I had made the right decision was that a few months after leaving, I realized that I didn’t miss playing any of his songs. It was the right decision for my musical soul. It doesn’t matter if I never play “Eye In The Sky” again”.

“One interesting point is, that in the blues/rock world where I have chosen to exist musically, my time with Alan Parsons doesn’t have much bearing on anything other than perhaps my credibility as a guitar player. There wasn’t any sort of heavy blues influence, so even contacts I made or people that I met don’t cross over to the blues community. So staying with his band, playing music that is about as far away from the blues as you can get, may have hurt my standing. I certainly don’t regret the chance to tour the world and play hit songs for lots of people. That experience is what you dream about when you are a kid learning how to play. But the time had come for me to roll the dice on playing music that was closer to my heart”.

The years of saying “yes” to most opportunities had given Greene the training and skills to exist in disparate musical environments, a talent that certainly helped his economic well-being. “I don’t consider myself to be a fantastic guitar player. But I am curious about different styles of music. And I have to pay the bills. Living in southern California is fantastic, but it is not the easiest place to exist on a musician’s salary. Thank God that I have an amazing wife who has a good job. Over these years of working for myself, I have done the best I can. I like to play guitar, this has been offered to me, so I have to go do it. I am not a progressive rock guitar player, which is the closest label I can think of for Alan’s music. But I had enough interest in Pink Floyd and other stuff that playing with him wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities”.

Another high profile gig came about due to connection made on a Parson’s tour. “We did a European tour in 2013. The guy that sang most of Alan’s material had a prior commitment. So they brought in Kip Winger to handle lead vocals. His band, Winger, was criminally under-rated in the 1980s as a metal band, but they were the bast musicians on the scene at the time. Kip was nominated for a classical composition Grammy Award a few years ago, which speaks to the level of talent in Alan’s band. Winger has two guitar players. They don’t tour much, so the band members get to do other things. One of their guys was playing in Starship. They also had a tour planned and needed a sub for some gigs. Winger asked me if I was interested. Here again, I didn’t know the song list. But you just say yes even if you are in way over your head. The second show I did with Starship in 2014 was opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd in front of thirty thousand fans in Florida at a festival. I haven’t done extensive touring with them, but I do fill in as needed. Their singer, Mickey Thomas, is a monster. It is a challenge because their music is not as easy as one might think. There is such a thing as bad keys for guitar players. And most of Starship’s hits are in bad guitar keys. Come on, not F or B flat!”

In 2018, Greene released Live At The 805, a two disc set that was the eighth under his name, including two other live recordings. The recording was nominated for a 2019 Blues Blast Music Award in the Rock Blues Album category. “I was proud of the studio record we did before that, Dream Train, and Live At The 805 certainly is a good representation of where I was at musically at that point in time, and another proud moment. I thought it was a good time to celebrate after all of the other crazy opportunities. We played some older material and included a handful of cover tunes. Jim Rankin, the bass player, had been in the band for a decade. The recording sounds amazing and we all played really well. It was gratifying to get all of the accolades and attention, which I wasn’t expecting. I didn’t see the Blues Blast nomination coming! It was awesome, as was making a number of best-of-the-year lists”.

imageIn 2019, Greene took advantage of another opportunity that came his way. He connected with singer Sugaray Rayford at the time that guitarist Gino Matteo was leaving Rayford’s band. “A big challenge for most bands is getting consistent bookings, especially if you don’t have a really good agent helping you. There are a handful of artists who are able to conjure up the skill set necessary to generate consistent bookings. I am not one of those individuals! There aren’t a lot of gigs in southern California, or the West coast in general. Most of the gigs are found east of the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River”. So I was struggling to get out there with my band. I had a booking agent who didn’t deliver as promised, so I was mostly sitting around after putting out two great records that I thought were going to get me over the hump”.

“Playing with Sugaray gave me a chance to get back on the road playing music that was close to my heart. I knew that it would not be a permanent position for me. Some people had recommended me, partly because he was looking for West coast players. The audition went well, and he offered me the position. So I got to play a bunch of funky soul blues for a year. We got lots of recognition, including a Blues Blast nomination in the Blues Band category. Sugaray just got nominated for a Grammy, so I kind of feel like I did my job. But his schedule is pretty intense, so it didn’t leave much time for my thing. There has to be balance. Since I had just signed a deal with Tab Benoit’s Whiskey Bayou Records label, it was time to get back to my music. The songs are written for the new album and mostly recorded. We still need to do some mixing and see if we want to make any changes. I think the record will surprise some people. It is a blues/rock record with a funky Louisiana rhythm section that hopefully will be out by early summer”.

These days Alastair leans toward using his Gibson Les Paul guitar with his band. While he was playing with Rayford, he featured a Fender Stratocaster as the sound of that guitar seemed to be a better fit for the singer’s music. As far as amplifiers, like a lot of blues players, he utilizes some classic Fender combo amps. He also has been working with some amps that have more of a “rock” sound to them. Two models he is currently working with are a Red Seven, from a company in Italy, and a Hughes & Kettner model made in Germany. He has never been too involved with effects pedals, although many of the bands he has played with required using pedals sparingly.

Greene remains open to whatever the cosmos has in store for him. “I really appreciate the fact that people are still coming out to listen to this music. And I have fun whenever I get the chance to get out of my comfort zone. It has been nice to make in-roads in the blues community, which started in 2014 with my release Trouble At Your Door, on the Eclecto Groove Records, a division of the Delta Groove Records, which was a real record label. I am still working really hard to get to the next level. There are a lot of people telling you no, people not getting back to you when you are trying to book a gig at their venue. So when you do get a positive review or get nominated for an award, you realize you don’t suck, and get the positive reinforcement that it takes to keep moving forward”.

Visit Alastair’s website for information on his live shows at https://agsongs.com.

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