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Jeff Buckley -25 Years Of 'Grace': Various Live Albums Review

Where do you start with voice and talent tragically cut so short that all we're left with is the slightest glimpse of something so delicate it might collapse as if the Venus de Milo was sculpted from a spider's web? A musician who channelled Folk, Jazz and Rock in a way that was so unique that it's never been touched since? A voice that really sounded like it came from heaven itself? More importantly, how do understand it's legacy and try to honour it in a way that's reverential and not ghoulish?

Jeff Buckley was destined for things of greatness. The son of acclaimed Folk musician Tim Buckley, Jeff managed to carve a sound that can only be described as ethereal. He would absorb so much music from so many different styles and genres while honing his craft before releasing his debut album "Grace" twenty five years ago this year. Promotional images from the time show a man with soulful eyes peering out through dark hair like he wanted to communicate directly to you, a troubadour who wanted to share his journey with you in such a way where you felt that his voice was the only one that mattered between the earth and the heavens.

It was this voice that captivated the listener. His range was beyond phenomenal, his control perfect. You could hear the timbre of his voice so warm and clear in everything he sang. His falsetto and vibrato belonged to angels, smoothly reaching beyond that of a more traditional singer/song writer. Hell, when you have the likes of Chris Cornell talking about the vocal talent that Buckley possessed then you know you really should listen to him.

On “Grace” Buckley could take a hymn like ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ (by Benjamin Britten) and really reach into the soul of the song, taking it somewhere else. His voice carried his soul in such a naked way that as a listener you could not help but be touched by his performance. This is especially evident on his take on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, a song that opens on the album with a sigh before curling up inside your head while whispering it’s secrets to you. Add into the mix songs like ‘Mojo Pin’, ‘Last Goodbye’, 'Grace' and 'Eternal Life' and you had a classic debut album that showed promise with the hint of so many possibilities. Reviews were originally quite mixed and it wasn't until a few years later that it’s legacy would be realised than more just the cult status he enjoyed. Even the likes of Rolling Stone magazine reneged on their original proclamations and acknowledged how they were wrong with their first thoughts on the album and Buckley himself, both now appearing high in retrospective reviews of the decade by the mainstream press.

Touring it's release cemented Jeff’s talents, and hinted at the maturity and growth that was developing at a great, natural pace. The Mystery White Boy tour as it was called headed around the globe, reaching like minded souls across the planet. He was able to take the seed of the songs from "Grace” and feed and nurture them until they fully blossomed. After touring he took some time away to work on several different things while we all waited calmly for more. Sadly though, Jeff would never see how far his music would reach after drowning late one night in the waters of Wolf River. Around this time he was working on what would have been his second album “My Sweetheart The Drunk” and was actually waiting for his band to arrive in Chicago the night he passed away. The songs were worked on posthumously and released as “Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk” a year after his passing,

Sony and the Buckley estate have decided to celebrate the silver anniversary of the release of “Grace” with four live albums covering from just before the release of Jeff’s debut up until the latter part of his world tour. They form a tantalising glimpse of the musicians involved, as well as bearing witness to how the songs would evolve beyond their studio births.

The earliest of the four albums is from Wetlands in New York in August 1994, literally a few days before the release of “Grace” and it feels incredibly intimate in comparison to the other shows released. After a short introduction that ties into Jeff's roots, they open with 'Mojo Pin", building slowly on the shimmering guitar parts before the song starts to flow through the musicians. There are some differences between the live versions here and those from "Grace". 'Eternal Life" starts off gentler before picking up, never quite the same intensity as the studio version. Jeff’s also in good spirits here, chatting to the audience between songs, making a lot of references to his now literary early days playing solo at Sin-é. 'Je N'en Connais Pas La Fin', a cover originally by Édith Piaf and a staple of his earlier days, is performed in such a sparse way; you feel like if there was a strong breeze it would cause the song to collapse. It feels almost like you're intruding on a new couple's relationship, everyone is still getting used to each other so there's some exploration between the band going on.

Fast forward a year on and you get a band that's seasoned and that know each other and, more importantly, the dynamics of the songs. There are two shows represented from May 1995 here. You've got a show from Cabaret Metro, Chicago that's been around for a while now (it's basically the audio from the "Live In Chicago" DVD), and also another from King Cat Theatre in Seattle. Set lists from both shows are very similar, with a couple of variations, with the King Cat show having a slightly longer set list. The sound is good on both with Buckley showing how much at ease he is being the focal point of the show. There's more of audience sound at the Chicago show, the Seattle show's audience is lower in the mix, giving Chicago a slight edge over the capital city of Grunge but the musicianship on both is excellent. Chords hang in the air, guitars reach out with yearning as Buckley's goes from a whisper to a wail within moments. The electricity in the rooms are felt easily by the listener and you really wish you could have been there to have been a part of this musical communion. Even his take on MC5's political riot 'Kick Out The Jams" feels like a celebration.

"Live At Columbia Records Radio Hour" has the benefit of being recorded as a radio session complete with studio audience, meaning the quality of the recording itself is excellent, but there's still an element of rawness. There's nervous chatter between songs and you can hear the buzz of their amps in the background. The addition of an accordion on 'Lover, You Should've Come Over' is subtle but adds so much to the song, making you wonder what Jeff would have been like ten or fifteen years on after allowing his muse to grow and develop further. The inclusion of a cover of The Smiths 'I Know It's Over' is another example of the musician choosing a cover that explains where he's come from, as well as allowing him to show much of himself in another artist's songs.

It’s hard to compare each album against each other as a lot of the songs are repeated but what you come away with is the feeling of the music now deep in you. Yes, there’s a certain feeling of melancholy to the performances, but there’s a also a sense of joy and celebration too. But, after those last notes fade away, you have a longing to what could have been, before tragedy snatched this talent away from us and the world, a world that is a much poorer place because of the songs that could have been. Instead we are left with these glimpses of genius and talent. If only there could have been more.

Review - Scott Hamilton

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