Jeff Buckley only played Chicago three times before his untimely passing in 1997, but his first was arguably his best.
On a cold, snowy night in February 1994, the revered singer-songwriter filled the quaint listening room at Uncommon Ground on Clark Street with soulful, spine-tingling renditions of songs like “Mojo Pin” and “Eternal Life.” Both were featured on his “Live at Sin-é” EP debut (recorded at a coffeeshop in New York City’s East Village in 1993) and would later become the material of “Grace,” Buckley’s only completed studio album, synonymous with the epic, haunting cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that refuses to fade away.
Every November, that original, haunting performance is memorialized with a popular series of tribute shows at Uncommon Ground on Buckley’s birthday, now in its 21st annual edition. Buckley’s mom Mary Guibert is often in attendance, and proceeds are donated to the Old Town School of Folk Music scholarship fund to help the next generation of great songwriters, making it even more special.
“The tributes offer a glimpse at what it would have been like to see Jeff play his intimate solo performance back in ’94. It was truly a magical night, with the way he pulled you in to the emotion of his performance,” recalls Michael Cameron, co-owner of Uncommon Ground (along with his wife Helen), who was the original talent booker of the venue and was convinced he had to book Buckley for the less-than-100-person venue after having a physical reaction to the demo cassettes given to him by Jam Productions’ Nick Miller. “Anyone who was witness I feel immediately became a fan for life.”
21st Annual Jeff Buckley Tribute Concerts When: 7 p.m. Nov. 17-18 Where: Uncommon Ground, 3800 N. Clark Tickets: $55 (Nov. 17 is sold out) Info: uncommonground.com
At the time, Buckley had just signed to Columbia Records, but his team opted to book a small, intimate tour to drive attention. “It could be a bookstore, coffeehouse, listening room; we wanted to create that ‘Live at Sin-é’ experience. The whole concept was to get press and owners of indie record stores, real tastemakers, to the show and let them spread the word of mouth,” says Dave Lory, Buckley’s manager and early confidant. “And it worked. People would say it was a religious experience seeing Jeff Buckley, and I’ve never had artist before or since who’s been able to do that.”
Earlier this year, Lory opened up about Buckley in a book, “Jeff Buckley From Hallelujah to the Last Goodbye.” Released in May, it has been lauded for its rare intimate look at the talent, starting at the moment Lory nearly walked out on Buckley at their first meeting because he was 45 minutes late, to the day he got “the call” about Jeff’s disappearance, later discovering that he had drowned accidentally in Memphis. The release of Lory’s book was followed by a worldwide tour over the summer where audience members could ask him questions and had the first chance to hear a live album, recorded at Australia’s Triple J studios, that has never been released.
“People ask why it took me 21 years to write the book, but the truth is I found it too painful, too raw to revisit,” says Lory, who was finally convinced after seeing a psychic and believing he got a message from Jeff from the other side. “I realized I never really grieved for him until writing this book.”
In it, Lory opens with a preface thanking Buckley for “the opportunity to witness some of the greatest moments in music history,” one of which was the night at Uncommon Ground, he says.
“I just knew the [Chicago] market would be big for us because you could hear a pin drop at the shows,” recalls Lory. “People were really paying attention to what he was singing, and I remember standing in the back with Nick [Miller], and we looked at each other and went, ‘OK, this is special. We are getting ready to go down into rock ‘n’ roll history here.’”
Though Lory has never been able to bring himself to attend one of the tribute shows (“I’m too close to it,” he says), he does commend the event at Uncommon Ground. “There have been other tributes, but I don’t think anyone has done 21 years in a row like they’ve done at Uncommon Ground, which is a credit to the fan base in Chicago,” he says. “That’s the kind of thing that will keep Jeff’s memory alive.”
10 acts from near and far to interpret Buckley’s songs
Rebecca Baruc, Uncommon Ground’s new talent booker (formerly of The Den Theatre), says for this year’s edition of the tribute shows, “I reached out to a lot of my favorite musicians who might be interested in adapting and trying something new.” Of the 10 acts, there is Eleanor’s Room, a piano-based act coming all the way from Rome, as well as eclectic local indie rockers Thin Hymns and Chicago’s ethereal folk darling V.V. Lightbody, both of whom “already seemed to embody the sound and spirit of Jeff Buckley,” says Baruc.
“I remember searching through an old friend’s CD case and finding a burned copy of ‘Grace.’ It was right after I moved to Chicago and I drove around listening to it, only to learn later about the praise behind the record and Jeff’s story,” says Lightbody who makes her first tribute appearance this year. “ ‘Grace’ matched my feelings of moving to the city, and I’ll easily admit to the amount of times that I’ve cried alone listening to ‘Lover You Should Have Come Over’ after a breakup. I was 4 years old when the record came out, but it hit me at the emotional age of 23. … Learning a few of his songs has made me come to respect his songwriting even more.”
Roberto Cipolat of Eleanor’s Room is an example of just how global Buckley’s music has become: The tribute will be his first time in America . “I have always wanted to join the tribute concert, and this year I decided to send a video audition to Uncommon Ground with my friend/bandmate Giovanni Lonati at the piano. It’s like a dream come true to perform [Jeff’s] music at such an event. Jeff’s music has became a constant in my life, and I think there’s still a lot of him still in today’s music.” Lonati adds, “It’s been very interesting to rearrange [Jeff’s] music in this completely different form. Although the original versions wouldn’t seem reconcilable with a piano-vocal rendition, they have actually offered new means of interpretation.”
Michael Albert of Thin Hymns says one of the biggest compliments he’s received came from a drunken Scottish woman who told him that his voice reminded her of Buckley’s. “[Jeff] was one of those pivotal artists for me. I never really identified with the hyper masculine/aggressive rock singers of that [‘90s] era, so it was instantly refreshing to hear a male singer express such dynamic vulnerability and sensitivity. I think people still relate to his music because of that vulnerability in his voice. Whether or not the song was his or not, he sounded sincere in capturing the song’s intent.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.