[22 October 2009]
The artistic growth and transformation of Bob Dylan and the Beatles are frequently referenced in discussions of the out-of-this-world changes taking place in pop music during the 1960s. The progress of Tim Buckley, while occurring on an admittedly smaller popularity scale, is just as unbelievable. And largely because Buckley never came close to those commercial heights—Happy Sad was his greatest chart success, reaching #81 on Billboard—his catalogue is ripe for exploration. In the last 20 years, there have been a handful of archival releases documenting Buckley’s trips to the studio and the stage. Live at the Folklore Center, recorded in 1967, is the earliest of these found tapes, and it’s a fascinating document.
Two and half years separate Live at the Folklore Center from Live at the Troubadour, recorded in 1969, with Dream Letter chronicling a performance in between. Taken as a trilogy, these live albums are as good a way as any of chronicling Buckley’s development. Live at the Folklore Center is a solo acoustic performance, and Dream Letter is a lengthy small-group show with greater vocal and instrumental improvisations. Live at the Troubadour finds Buckley moving further into jazz and the avant-garde, and the distance between that and the Folklore Center gig seems almost impossible for a guy in his early twenties to have traveled.
The real difference between Live at the Folklore Center and any other Buckley record, and the primary reason for its relevance, is that it’s the most stripped-down music of his that exists: it’s just Buckley’s voice and guitar. In that sense, it’s also the Buckley record that most obviously fits into the folksinger box that never really managed to contain him. It’s striking to hear Buckley at this point in his career, a few months ahead of his second album, Goodbye and Hello, and with such a primitive sound. Buckley’s first two studio records were ornate productions; Live at the Folklore Center reveals him as an earnest and youthful folkie with literary pretensions and a gift for melody.
Buckley is quoted in the liner notes as saying, “As far as singing goes, I like Fred Neil and Tim Hardin ... I discovered my high voice in high school when I started singing. It just happened. I could probably go higher. Or lower. I’m always trying to stretch myself, explore; I love to see change”. Interestingly, it would be in going lower that Buckley would most closely approximate the feel of his influences, particularly Neil. And in going higher, by crying, wailing, screeching, he went further than anyone else dared or was physically able to. Live at the Folklore Center, however, predates Buckley’s experimental period, and as such, bears few if any of the qualities he’d leap toward only a year later. Not even when he’s singing Neil’s “Dolphins” does he edge into that territory. Compare the Folklore Center “Dolphins” to the one on Dream Letter (not to mention the versions he’d do in the ‘70s, like on Sefronia): in one you’ll hear Buckley’s high voice almost exclusively, and in the other you’ll hear him weaving a spell, drifting from the high to the low and sounding rougher and a lot older than a year earlier. If he was a choirboy at 20, singing in a sometimes painfully high voice with awkward British affectations, at 21 he was a moaning white blues singer with Fred Neil’s gravity, but considerably more range.
Buckley’s repertoire at the Folklore Center would’ve surprised anyone familiar with him only from his debut album: four of the 16 songs come from that record, with an additional four from the forthcoming Goodbye and Hello, the non-album “Troubadour”, “Dolphins”—practically a standard even at this early date—and a whopping six Buckley compositions that until now had never appeared on record. It’s these half-dozen songs that provide even the casual Tim Buckley fan (if such a person exists) with a great reason to buy Live at the Folklore Center. But they aren’t mere collector bait; they’re decent songs, by and large, with “Cripples Cry” and “If the Rain Comes” blessed with gorgeous melodies, and if “Country Boy” is a lyrical cliche, it’s fascinating to hear Buckley starting to explore the kind of singing that would eventually color “Gypsy Woman” and “The Train”. “Country Boy” is also the least structured composition here, and in that way anticipates Buckley’s later, more exploratory performance style.
35 years after his death, Tim Buckley gets more fascinating with each new discovery. As a concert recording, Live at the Folklore Center is an engaging, tuneful listen, showing a confident young performer starting to flex his muscles. As a glimpse into the evolution of one of the most original talents to transcend the ‘60s folk scene, it’s indispensable.