JEFF BUCKLEY – ” Live at Sin-é ” (Legacy Edition)

Posted: April 12, 2020 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Jeff Buckley is my musical icon for a number of different reasons. Not only is he, in my humble opinion, one of the most arresting and transcendent voices to have ruled the planet – still influencing singers and making its mark some many years after his death.

At a time (1993) when Grunge and Rock were topping the charts and inspiring legions of new bands: embracing something like Jeff Buckley’s “Live at Sin-é” might seem like an insane notion. You cannot deny the pleasures and beauty that lie within.
“He moved to New York City in February 1990, but found few opportunities to work as a musician. He was introduced to Qawwali, the Sufi devotional music of India and Pakistan, and to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, one of its best-known singers. Buckley was an impassioned fan of Khan, and during what he called his “cafe days,” he often covered Khan’s songs. In January 1996, he interviewed Khan for Interview and wrote liner notes for Khan’s Supreme Collection, Vol. 1 compilation. Buckley also became interested in blues musician Robert Johnson and hardcore punk band Bad Brains during this time. Buckley moved back to Los Angeles in September when his father’s former manager, Herb Cohen, offered to help him record his first demo of original songs. Buckley completed Babylon Dungeon Sessions, a four-song cassette that included the songs “Eternal Life“, “Unforgiven” (later titled “Last Goodbye“), “Strawberry Street” (a different version of which appears on the “Grace” Legacy Edition), and punk screamer “Radio”.[40] Cohen and Buckley hoped to attract attention from the music industry with the demo tape.

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Buckley flew back to New York early the following year to make his public singing debut at a tribute concert for his father called “Greetings from Tim Buckley”. The event, produced by show business veteran Hal Willner, was held at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn on April 26th, 1991.  Buckley rejected the idea of the concert as a springboard to his career, instead citing personal reasons regarding his decision to sing at the tribute. With accompaniment by experimental rock guitarist Gary Lucas, Buckley performed “I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain”, a song Tim Buckley wrote about an infant Jeff Buckley and his mother. Buckley returned to the stage to play “Sefronia – The King’s Chain”, “Phantasmagoria in Two”, and concluded the concert with “Once I Was” performed acoustically with an impromptu a cappella ending, due to a snapped guitar string. Willner, the show’s organizer, later recalled that Buckley’s set closer made a strong impression. Buckley’s performance at the concert was counter-intuitive to his desire to distance himself musically from his father. Buckley later explained his reasoning to Rolling Stone: “It wasn’t my work, it wasn’t my life. But it bothered me that I hadn’t been to his funeral, that I’d never been able to tell him anything. I used that show to pay my last respects.” The concert proved to be his first step into the music industry that had eluded him for years.

On subsequent trips to New York in mid-1991, Buckley began co-writing with Gary Lucas resulting in the songs “Grace” and “Mojo Pin“, and by late 1991 he began performing with Lucas’ band Gods and Monsters around New York City. After being offered a development deal as a member of Gods and Monsters at Imago Records, Buckley moved back to New York to the Lower East Side at the end of 1991. The day after Gods and Monsters officially debuted in March 1992, Buckley then decided to leave the band”.

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Sin-é was, and sadly no longer is, an Irish coffeehouse in New York’s East Village. Just look at the cover for Live at Sin-é and you can see how ‘cosy’ and small the place is. It is, in this rare and ultra-commercial time, a throwback to simpler, honest times – an independent coffee house that is not subjected to brand marketing and identikit shop banners – a million chains of Starbucks on your doorstep. It is one of my lasting regrets I never got to step into Sin-é and witnessing the magic go down. Back in 1993, just before Buckley signed his record deal, it was host to some modestly successful music nights. You had some great talents walk through the door but none like Buckley: as though medium and location were married in harmony the first time he opened his mouth.

You can practically hear spoons drop and coffee being made; little throat clears and people applauding – so intimate and homely. For that reason, it feels like you are right in the mix with Buckley: sitting with him as he unveils performances of immense beauty.

Aside from the sparse and cloistered space – the confined and raw setting – there is oceans of atmosphere, sound and reflection. Just listen to these little conversational snippets and Buckley’s charming and quirky personality comes through.

The album is not a set of ramped-up album songs with stilted conversation in-between. You do not get a band awkwardly shuffling between numbers and re-tuning. There is a real person speaking directly to the audience: they, in turn, are in Buckley’s palms and at his mercy. The music is not your typical live affair. Most live albums (the average ones anyway) have the classics and they are performed to a typically assured level – enough to please the punters and get the crowds singing. Throughout Live at Sin-é there are songs being performed like never before. Buckley covers – as you will see in some selections later – such a wide range of songs from so many different eras. Many of the patrons that saw Buckley perform would not have heard many of these songs played. Even tracks that would appear on “Grace” – the title track and Last Goodbye – were in their early stages and being experimented with. It was a young man starting to find his feet and taking his first steps. Ragged, loose and rough around the edges: just a human, guitar and amp – surrounded a choice few New York gig-goers. Even though it was released in 1993 it translates incredibly well and sounds as divine and seductive as the day it was released.

Before I get down to the finest double album ever I want to look at my favourite: Jeff Buckley’s New York-based gem, Live at Sin-é. In 1993, Columbia Records – who signed Jeff before he made Grace – released a four-track E.P. that showcased Buckley’s interpretative talents and singular talent. The label decided to release a two-disc version of two separate recordings at the coffeehouse – taped over two afternoons in 1993. It is not just the cover versions that struck a chord. Included in the covers were versions of tracks by Billie Holiday (Strange Fruit) and Bob Dylan (If You See Her, Say Hello and Just Like a Woman). In the intimate surroundings, the young Buckley was at his most comfortable and natural. Limos were lining up the block to see the young master – record executives fighting to get that wet signature on their contracts. Live at Sin-é finds Buckley interacting with the small crowd – ad-libbing and cracking jokes and shooting the breeze- armed only with his trusty Telecaster. Soon-to-be-released songs like Grace and Last Goodbye (titled Unforgiven (Last Goodbye) on the live album) were taking shape: a snapshot of someone still finding their true voice but perfectly capable of seducing when portraying someone else’s.

As live albums go, it has to be right up there – indispensable for every much fan out there. Buckley was keen to never repeat himself as a performed – no two renditions of the same song – and you can hear that here. He is always thinking and working as the song prevails; taking it in a new direction and keeping the audience alert. The sign of a true master is one who can make old songs sound new and reborn: something you will see

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