As host band Friday After Five kicks off the weekly jam session at Mad Bob’s Saloon, the lead guitarist of Drifting Son stands a few feet from the stage, fingering the fretboard of a white Stratocaster like an anxious horse pawing the track. After a long spell of wondering whether he’d ever play again, Leddie Jackson is ready to rock.
The fleet-fingered guitarist was once a fixture in the New England music scene, with a style many compared to Jeff Beck or Jimi Hendrix. A child prodigy, he learned the opening riffs of “Smoke on the Water” and “Seasons of Wither” at age five, when most of his friends were singing nursery rhymes. He’s played in bands since he was a teenager.
But in 2003, Jackson began to experience sharp pain in his neck, back and arms. As his condition worsened, he was forced to give up playing: “I was challenged to even take care of my basic needs,” he says. For Jackson, a health buff who typically worked out twice a day, the effect was devastating.
“I freely admit I had my issues with depression,” Jackson said as he sat at a table in Mad Bob’s, waiting for the music to start. “I never got so far in the bottle that I missed a week of work, but I didn’t know who I was.” He was eventually diagnosed with stenosis and thoracic outlet syndrome, which required surgery to repair his spine with a titanium plate, screws and bioengineered bone.
He began a years-long journey back to making music.
“I didn’t realize that was who I was until it started to slip away from me,” Jackson says. His girlfriend provided inspiration, first by asking to hear some old songs and then by giving him a keyboard for Christmas. Though he soon gave it up — playing aggravated his condition — the attempt helped steel his determination. “Through those interactions I started to think maybe I can do this a different way … slowly but surely I started to learn.”
By early 2010, Jackson was “back from the dead,” writing and recording songs with friends from his old hometown of Worcester. One complication of rehab was that Jackson acquired a heavy-handed style that wore out equipment — apart from the body, his Stratocaster is made entirely of custom parts, and he relies on a tremolo bar to control his picking hand. Because his injury didn’t affect his fret-making hand, what often results is a frenetic attempt by his right hand to keep up with the left.
Jackson’s demolition-derby technique begged for a qualified guitar tech. After finding his name on a Laundromat wall, he hired Fender-certified Ted Sirois to repair one of his guitars.
“When he came down to try it out and started playing it, I went wow — this guy’s great,” Sirois recalls.
“Jokingly, I said, ‘If your bass player ever has an accident, give me a call.’”
As it turned out, Jackson’s studio pals weren’t available to do live shows, and he soon contacted Sirois. He found drummer Carlo Carlucci via a more meandering route. Carlucci first responded to a Craigslist ad, then decided a new gig would take too much time away from his successful cover band, Without Paris.
But six weeks later, Carlucci changed his mind and called Jackson.
“I think what happens with cover music is you get to a point where you can only be so creative with it. I wanted to push a little bit further,” Carlucci says. “It was Rob’s music that drew me in. There are a lot of original acts out there, but his style — it’s fun music to play as a drummer.”
Audiences enjoy it. Drifting Son played its first gig in August, and since then they’ve had successful shows at Manchester’s Jam Factory and a few other venues. They are often greeted like headliners at the Mad Bob’s jams. Tonight, they launch into the original “Hey Stupid,” followed quickly by “Golden” and “One Way Street,” two songs that have gotten a lot of spins on the band’s ReverbNation page.
Watching Jackson’s fingers fly effortlessly up and down the neck of his Fender, you’d be forgiven for wondering how it’s possible that he was once afflicted to the point of not playing at all. His soaring solos recall Barry Goudreau of Boston, Robin Trower and Eric Clapton — and he can sing better than any of those guys.
The highlight of the evening is a rocked up version of the theme from Peanuts that segues into “Somebody to Love,” a song that sounds instantly familiar, but no — it’s an original; one of many Jackson’s written since returning to music. The trio closes with a guitar-driven cover of Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” that showcases Carlucci’s drumming skills and Jackson’s ability to transform his guitar into a synthesizer.
The Thursday night crowd is small, but they momentarily forget it’s an open-mike night and drag the band back for an encore. Leddie Jackson beams from the stage, having the time of his life — his second life.
“I would swear that if you looked down at me from a satellite when I’m on stage you’d see a big light surrounding me,” he says. “That’s how I feel.”