Well-known Santa Cruz singer-songwriter Keith Greeninger emerges from the pandemic with new material, heading back onto to the stage Friday at Kuumbwa and then to festivals.
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In the winter of 2020, Keith Greeninger was having a moment. On Jan. 31 of that year, in the wake of the release of a bracing new album titled “Human Citizen” and the publication of an admiring cover story in the weekly Good Times, Greeninger headlined a big show at the Rio Theatre.
Greeninger planted “Human Citizen” as his stake in the ground on the subject of human rights and social justice — as well as his response to the widespread sense of dread and hopelessness in the midst of the Trump years. “‘O my country,” he sings in the anthemic “22 Angels,” a heartbreaking ode to homeless veterans, “show a little decency/ for your warriors on the street.”
“It was huge show,” Greeninger remembered, “full band, the whole kit ’n’ caboodle. It was just a beautiful show.”
Just a few weeks later, like the rest of the performing arts world around the globe, Greeninger was drawn into the deep, dark tunnel of COVID-19.
On Friday, Greeninger finally emerges from that tunnel with his first headlining live performance since the pandemic began. In that downtime, he did a few Zoom livestreams, including the “Love You Madly” streaming event that raised money for fire relief, and a tribute/benefit concert for the family of late doctor Randy Baker in Soquel last December. But mostly, he’s kept a low profile. Until now.
“I didn’t really jump out and book a lot of things in the last year and a half,” he said. “I kinda had a feeling things would get started and then fall apart. But now, it just feels like whatever happens (with COVID-19), it just feels like the time to gather again in real time.”
It marks the beginning of a back-in-business summer for Greeninger, who will strike out on tour on the festival circuit, including the final Kate Wolf Festival in Mendocino County in late June. And it all begins Friday with a solo show at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center.
“It feels like the right place to start,” he said. “The Kuumbwa has been one of my favorite theaters to play on the whole planet ever since I started playing professionally. So it’s nice to bring everybody back together and touch base with the audience again.”
Greeninger, 60, might be the greatest “3-2-1” musical artist in Santa Cruz’s history. That is, he has had big successes as part of a trio — alongside Kimball Hurd and Roger Feuer in the 1990s folk group City Folk — as well as in a duo, with singer and multi-instrumentalist Dayan Kai. But he’s also toured widely and recorded regularly as a solo artist, dating back to “Wind River Crossing” in 1997.
He first came to Santa Cruz around the time he got his first guitar, at the age of 13, when his family moved over the hill from San Jose. On his most recent album, he got to record with longtime local musicians such as Jimmy Norris of the band Snail and Tiran Porter, ex of the Doobie Brothers, both of whom he considered just short of rock gods when he was a kid.
Since “Human Citizen,” Greeninger has written new material, though he didn’t necessarily look at the long pandemic layoff as an opportunity for songwriting. Through the online and streaming performances he did in the early months of the pandemic, Greeninger turned to community building in a more direct way, by reaching out to his audience through technology and keeping them connected to him and each other.
“The other thing that was really nice about the pandemic was that our role as artists became all about maintaining a certain amount of connection and comfort for people,” he said. “What was kind of cool was just going to the studio and having a buddy recording you playing a song that everybody could sing. If you saw those community singalongs that I did when the pandemic first hit, it just felt like, what people needed was just connection. So, I played a John Lennon song, like ‘Imagine,’ and I teach people the chords. It was just me in the studio, but I would send it out via the internet to invite people to play with me. And it was really, really wonderful to watch how people responded to that, sitting there with their guitars and simple songs where it was only three or four chords, but there were songs that we all knew.
“One of the most powerful things for me was to see where your art form sits ‘in the village,’ so to speak. We always want to try our best stuff, our coolest stuff, our deepest stuff, but when we had a situation like we had, it really gets stripped down to: What are you giving people? What do you offer? We know what teachers offer. We know what builders offer. It’s always a good idea for artists to be reevaluated in what they’re bringing to the fold. And I found the pandemic valuable in that way.”
At his solo Kuumbwa gig, Greeninger will explore songs both old and new. Of his newest not-yet-recorded material, he said that he’s been concerned with issues of loss and mortality, of what he calls the inevitable “graceful departure”: “The whole beauty of it all is just making peace with the chaos.”
He is, however, far from finished with following his muse. He’s gathering material to record in the fall in his spacious Happy Valley recording studio, where he also helps other musicians achieve their vision. He and his wife, Susan, just last year bought a house in Capitola. His adult daughter and son both live close by.
The next album will be something more “stripped down” and roots-oriented. “I like to stay close to the roots right now,” he said. “It just feels like what my spirit is telling me to do.”
Keith Greeninger plays live at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, on Friday, May 6. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Opening is Elie Mabanza.