Jeff Buckley was a singular talent, or at least he had the potential to become one. Of his “finished” work, we received exactly one album—1994’s transcendent Grace—before he drowned in the Mississippi River. Since then, there’s been a double-CD of unfinished songs (1998’s Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk), two live CDs (2000’s Mystery White Boy and 2001’s Live at L’Olympia), and a pre-Grace collaboration with ex-Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas (2002’s Songs to No-One 1991-1992. Buckley’s no threat to Tupac Shakur in the posthumous release category, but his camp has been very busy over the last few years. Each of these records has its moments—all of them together crying out for a mix CD distillation—but they offer more “what ifs” than confirmation that Grace‘s genius wasn’t some divine fluke. If Buckley were still alive, it’s doubtful that much from these discs would have seen official release.
Live at Sin-é: Deluxe Edition also falls into that camp. When first released in 1993 as a four-track EP, Live at Sin-é offered a good teaser for Grace, although Sin-é offered a lone coffeehouse incarnation of Buckley as opposed to the Buckley of Grace, who sounded like angels and devils were fighting to death, with one side taking the form of Edith Piaf and the other incarnating as Led Zeppelin. Still, it was an intriguing glimpse at a formative Buckley who couldn’t always keep his considerable talents in check.
The Deluxe Edition rounds this unassuming little collectible into a 2-hours-and-37 minutes juggernaut (including the 11-minute DVD portion) consisting of 21 songs and 13 spoken monologues. As a result, it magnifies everything that was good and bad about the original. Recorded at a small New York cafe on July 19th and August 17th of 1993, Live at Sin-é captures a rough-edged Buckley alone with his guitar—sometimes it works, sometimes not. Though little time passed between these recordings and the release of Grace, not many songs from Buckley’s debut show up here. Of those that do, “Eternal Life” fares the best—there’s real fire even in this stripped down, slow-burning version—and Buckley seems extremely comfortable with it; it even bears the distinction of being one the only songs he addresses directly in his between-song patter (the bulk of Buckley’s stage banter here has nothing to do with what he’s playing). Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” also fares pretty well, but falls fairly short of Grace‘s revelatory reading.
Most of Live at Sin-é‘s archival interest rests in its plentiful covers. Cohen, Van Morrison, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and even Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan pop up in the mix, and Buckley’s nods to his heroes bring much of Grace into focus. “Hallelujah” has always best represented Buckley’s mix of mysticism, sensuality, and what at times felt like an almost sacred view of the carnal. Its closest relative on Sin-é is a rendition of “Strange Fruit”. It initially seems audacious, probably even pretentious, for a pale arty boy like Buckley to tackle a song still steaming, decades after it was written, with anger at racial injustice. Buckley, though, approaches the song reverently, with a bluesy guitar intro and gospel-tinged chord choices that create an interesting juxtaposition against the song’s grim lynching imagery. He doesn’t quite pull it off—certainly, he doesn’t cast a shadow on either Billie Holiday’s or Nina Simone’s seminal versions—but it raises Sin-é‘s biggest “what if?”. If Buckley hadn’t died, if he had revisited the song, could he have established his right to sing it just as he had laid claim to “Hallelujah”, and just how strange and amazing could that have been?
Other covers on Sin-é vary, with few of them coming as much of a surprise. His take on Zeppelin’s “Night Flight” features a nice, understated guitar intro, but comes across as a bit of a goof. His rote rendition of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai” leaves something to be desired as an addition to the Qawwali canon, but Buckley’s fascination with the swoops and swerves of Khan’s style are understandable—they’re a perfect fit for Buckley’s tendency to oversing. That same tendency is something you just have to accept with Live at Sin-é; Buckley’s style resonated with total commitment and at its best, showed a remarkable and refreshing lack of self-consciousness. Overall, though, Sin-é shows Buckley with a reasonably firm handle on his flourishes. Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello” features some Indian guitar strains for some extra flavor, while he convincingly tears into the traditional “Dink’s Song”, making it sound like even more of a Zep tune than “Night Flight”. Buckley completely invests himself in Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do”, injecting the song with hepped-up jazzy guitar and scat vocals that just carry you along.
It’s important to remember that most of Sin-é finds Buckley still tugging at the sleeves and coattails of his style, still trying to get them to fit as best they can. Without the sympathetic, locked-in backing band he had for Grace, Buckley and his guitar must go it alone. As the set progresses, you gain a real appreciation for the slide guitar that, in Buckley’s hands, sounded like the Music of the Spheres channeled through a Marshall stack. You lock in to the sincere awe he holds for many of the songs he sings. You take note of his unique blend of gospel and jazz chords. You realize that Grace was no fluke, for all of Sin-é‘s formative flaws.
During one of the performances captured on Live at Sin-é, Buckley jokes, “I’m a ridiculous person and you’re lucky you paid no money to see me”. It’s doubtful that many patrons at Sin-é felt that way, even when Buckley was at his most precious. But “lucky” and “unlucky” play into Buckley’s legacy. Those folks at Sin-é were lucky to catch a rising star at a hole-in-the-wall cafe. We were all lucky to at least get Grace before Buckley’s senseless death. But the world was incredibly unlucky that Buckley never got the chance to take all of these influences that he funneled into Grace and finesse them through to other projects, where his gestating ideas could really explode into something legendary. Buckley showed that gift, even if he may never have realized it he had lived. Live at Sin-é is undeniably a document for hardcore Buckley fans, but it shows that everything Buckley was building rested on a good foundation.