Jeff Buckley Dies Young, Lives Forever
In life, rock stars are fallible, capable of recording a bad album or being arrested for some unsavory violation you’d rather not know about. But when one of our heroes dies young, they’re elevated to immortal status. The musician is canonized for their finer qualities, while their personality flaws or artistic misjudgments are forgiven. Tupac and Jim Morrison come to mind. Both were good rock stars made great in death. Of course, in some cases the worship is warranted. There’s no doubt that Jimi Hendrix revolutionized the way everyone plays the electric guitar. Meanwhile John Lennon’s terrible assassination did nothing to change his legendary status. But unlike other dead rock stars, with numerous albums and world tours under their belts, Jeff Buckley was a relative newcomer to celebrity when he passed away in 1997. His death was made all the more tragic when you learn about his father, Tim Buckley, who tragically died of a heroin overdose in 1975.
In the space of one studio album, and a number of recorded live performances, Jeff Buckley managed to carve out a global cult following. His popularity clearly surpassed his father’s. Buckley’s first, and only, studio album Grace can still be found in most college freshman dorm rooms, and is a main stay of lonely heart clubs everywhere. In contrast to his father, Jeff Buckley never had a chance to follow up his debut. He died in a swimming accident in 1997 on the Mississippi River while writing material for his second album.
Ultimately, Buckley’s popularity is well deserved. His dreamy lyrics and lush guitar melodies are supported by a mesmerizing voice that really had no equal. Of course, it’s hard to listen to Buckley sing and not recall the powerful lungs of Robert Plant, whose uncontrolled wail drove the runaway train that was Led Zeppelin in the ‘70s. But there’s more to Buckley’s voice than Plant’s throaty passion. Buckley credits the role that international artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan played in shaping his musical landscape. The magnetic charisma he displayed on stage, however, was unique. This helped to hypnotize the audience for epic shows that tended to last for three or more hours.
The five discs that make up The Grace EPs are a collection of live performances and a few studio versions from songs that appeared on Buckley’s debut album Grace. A few b-sides are also included. Some of the discs in the set were originally released internationally in Europe and Australia as promotional items. Clearly, the promotion worked. Two years after releasing Grace, Buckley was honored with France’s Gran Prix International Du Disque, an award previously given to artistic heroes such as Edith Piaf, Bob Dylan, and Yves Montand. During this time, he toured the globe extensively, performing countless shows in support of his music. The Grace EPs help capture some of this majesty.
There are 19 songs included in the five-disc set, and the producers have selected a number of versions of the songs Buckley and his band preferred to perform live. The first disc in the set, called Peyote Dream Theatre, begins with the studio recording of “Mojo Pin”. It’s a song of love lost and longed for. Buckley begins gently with his otherworldly wail that seems to transcend a dream he’s having. Before you know it, there’s a musical storm going on. Buckley’s voice provides the lightning, amidst the rain of Gary Lucas’s guitar work, and the thunderous drums of Matt Johnson. The recording of “Mojo Pin”, taken from a performance at The Wetlands in New York City on the Last Goodbye disc, begins with a beautiful melody strummed by guitarist Michael Tighe. You can hear the influence of Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn in Buckley’s fluctuating tone during the song’s sensual, seven-minute introduction. Picture him with his eyes closed on stage, completely unaware of his bandmates, and yet perfectly synchronized with them. A final version, recorded in Australia, and heard on The Grace EP is strained, with less intensity than the version recorded at The Wetlands.
The gorgeous “Kanga-Roo”, originally written by Alex Chilton and recorded by the influential underground group Big Star, was a favorite of the Buckley’s, and he and the band enjoyed performing it. According to bassist Mark Grondahl, “Kanga-Roo” was popular because it was something Buckley could really sink his teeth into. The live version, off of The Last Goodbye EP begins like a hymn. Buckley’s voice slides through Michael Tighe’s guitar work, which sounds like a harp here. Meanwhile, Matt Johnson’s drumming is reminiscent of Stephen Perkins’ live work with Jane’s Addiction. Somehow he invokes spirits with the rhythms manifesting themselves through his kit. This version, recorded at Bearsville Studios in New York, is superior to the album version, also included in the set on the Peyote Dream Theatre EP. Both the original and the live version go on for about 15 minutes, but the original sounds redundant compared with the version on The Last Goodbye EP.
The set includes other live covers as well, like the spare tribute to Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do”. Hank Williams’ “The Lost Highway” features some of the sets’ most beautiful slide guitar work. But Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” is the real treat. A sweet, lilting guitar instrumental opens the song like a lullaby, with Buckley’s trembling vocals buttering up Leonard Cohen’s classic composition. The version on the Live From Bataclan EP is the best in the box set.
Of course, what would the set by without a version of the oddly prescient “Grace”. Listening to lyrics like “There’s a moon asking to stay / Long enough for the clouds to fly away/ Well, it’s my time coming, I’m not afraid to die” will make you shudder. Whether Buckley was putting himself in his father’s shoes, or was simply reflecting on the inevitable is hard to say. The live version of this precious song is both more distorted and more urgent than the recorded version, which is also included on another disc. Buckley sounds engaged in what he’s singing, and the changing time signatures flow more elegantly. Particularly, the recording from the Nighttown club in the Netherlands on the So Real EP. It pours from your speakers like liquor out of a bottle, and you get the feeling that Buckley couldn’t stop singing the song even if he wanted to. In fact, he doesn’t stop singing at the end of the song after the band has quit. This is really one of the highlights of the box set.
The set’s only real shortcoming should come as no surprise to anyone who ever had the chance to see Buckley perform in concert. Many of the song selections go on for much longer than they should. Single notes plucked again and again, as heard through an effects pedal, mottle the sound into infinity. It probably sounded wonderful at the time of the show, but the recorded version just doesn’t work. The recording of “Tongue” on The Grace EP is a particular example of the tendency. This is not to say that none of the longer selections work. Buckley always said that he was happiest when he was playing for an audience, and most of his live performances seem to prove that. Onstage, Buckley had a reputation for exhausting his entire repertoire of songs at each show. Then he would start taking requests from the audience. Playing music wasn’t just Buckley’s bread and butter. It was his air and water as well.
The bottom line? If you’re new to Jeff Buckley, Grace is probably a better introduction to the man’s song writing and spirit. But if you’re a devoted Buckley-phile, this set is for you. It’s beautifully put together, with crisp sound quality in the live performances, and captures Buckley’s tremendous flair for stage improvisation. This isn’t a greedy attempt by the man’s estate to fill their coffers. It’s a legitimate collection of fine material, that just happens to be all we have left.