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Uncommon Ground’s Jeff Buckley tribute show celebrates 20 years

Michael Cameron, owner of Uncommon Ground at 3800 N. Clark, Monday Nov. 6, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Everyone always remembers that it was snowing the night Jeff Buckley played Uncommon Ground in February of 1994. It was the type of big, fat, heavy snowflakes that pressed up against the windows of the then small coffeehouse off Grace Street in Wrigleyville, blocking the outside world from the mythical performance that, to this day, only a few people — 30 tops — can truthfully say they were in attendance.

It was Buckley’s first-ever show in Chicago, months before he’d release his only completed studio album, “Grace,” which has now become synonymous for the epic, haunting cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and three years before he would pass before his time in an accidental drowning in Memphis. Buckley only played Chicago a few times after that, including a raucous drunken spell at the Green Mill in November of that year and a gig at Metro in ’95, which was recorded for a live DVD and posthumously released. But nothing lived up to that first night in the coffeehouse.

When: 6 p.m. Nov. 16-17
Where: Uncommon Ground, 3800 N. Clark
Tickets: $55 (Nov. 17 is sold out)
Info: uncommonground.com

“We had the fireplace going and the windows were all steamed up. You could hear a pin drop between the tinkling of coffee cups and teaspoons,” said Uncommon Ground co-owner Michael Cameron. “It was whisper-quiet as [Jeff] was just blowing everybody away with his set. It was one of those moments when you can look back in time and say, wow that was really magical. Everyone in that room could agree we just witnessed something amazing.”

Cameron (along with his wife Helen) can still recall the palpable energy of that wistful show some 23 years later. It continues to lives on in memoriam at annual tribute shows at the venue every year, on Buckley’s birthday, where musicians from Chicago and around the world interpret Buckley’s work, with proceeds donated to The Old Town School of Folk Music scholarship fund to help the next generation of great songwriters. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the sold-out tributes, which will continue to be live-streamed on Facebook to meet the demand (at one point last year there were nearly 120,000 viewers).

As the original talent booker for Uncommon Ground in the ‘90s, Cameron can remember feeling a physical reaction when he listened to the demo cassettes of Buckley that were passed along to him by Jam Productions’ Nick Miller. “I thought, man what an amazing voice, especially with all those high notes he was hitting,” Cameron recalls. “I called back Nick right away and was like, ‘Yeah let’s definitely book this kid.’”

Buckley was virtually unknown at the time though he had made the rounds in the New York underground. After getting signed to Columbia Records, he decided to embark on a small, intimate tour to try to build some organic attention. It was just Buckley and his driver/tour manager/sound engineer Reggie Griffith that rolled through town.

“Reggie and Jeff showed up, with just a guitar in hand. We had a tiny mixing board and essentially Jeff just wanted to play through his guitar amp. He was also recording all the shows so he set up his recording rig as well and, after a quick sound check we started,” recalls Cameron who can still remember celebrating the gig with Buckley with a bottle of red wine after all was said and done.

Jeff Buckley | FILE PHOTO

Al Rose, a local musician and owner of Andersonville’s Kopi: A Traveler’s Café, was in attendance. “Jeff just stood up there with his guitar, no muss no fuss and sang his tunes, and I remember being really taken by his voice. It was this interesting combination of the high range of Robert Plant with the soul of Van Morrison,” Rose recalls. “He did a couple of covers that stand out to me. An Edith Piaf cover and then of course Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ that he became known for. The thing that was so cool about that Uncommon Ground show was that there was no buzz on it, no one knew who he was he came through, and now we still talk about him.”

Buckley’s mother Mary Guibert says her son would be the last one to “characterize any of his performances, especially in those solo days. … He would think how quaint of us to still think the stuff he did so early in his career was still listenable,” she says, laughing, though not agreeing. “There’s always a spiritual sacred reason people have for being touched by Jeff. He was that kind of performer.”

Though she was not in attendance on that night in ’94, Guibert has grown close to the Camerons and has been a guest at a few of the dates over the course of time, including last year for her son’s 50th birthday. She will return this year.

“It’s always such a great event with amazing performers who show up from all over the world and just throw their heart at the moon. They’re all unsigned, totally in the Jeff Buckley tradition, and have gone on to get recording contracts and have successful careers,” Guibert says. “The way that Michael brings musicians through Uncommon Ground and gives them an opportunity for a springboard, I think that’s what makes this tribute really more meaningful,” she says admitting that the attention of shows like these give her an idea of how well she is doing with handling the legacy.

Jeff Buckley | FILE PHOTO

Guibert is the head of Buckley’s estate and mentions several key projects in the works including the much-anticipated official biopic, which “is getting closer to becoming a reality,” as well as signing a contract with the Lyric Hammersmith Theater in London to put up a production of “The Last Goodbye,” which is Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” accompanied by Buckley’s music that also had a run in the States. There is also an upcoming book, helmed by David Brown (who wrote the 2000 biography about Jeff and his father Tim Buckley, the psych folk singer that also died at a young age), that will offer a peek at some of the younger Buckley’s journal pages for the first time.

Of the ongoing interest with Buckley and his work, Guibert can only assess that it was because her son remained ahead of his time. “Here he was this quirky guy dressed in mustard stained T-shirts and did not own a comb or brush. He was a vagabond kid coming through life singing Edith Piaf songs and was so intent on breaking all the rules. I think it took culture a while to catch up with him, and thankfully there’s ways we still can,” she says with her own thoughts about what we missed out on the 20 years he’s been gone.

“It would be a curious thing to have him come back at this point. I try to conceptualize him walking through the door, which would mean he’s been alive all this time on another plane of consciousness, and I’d have to tell you whatever he had accomplished on other side would far surpass anything he did here,” she fantasizes. “He would definitely already have collaborated with all his heroes and written a magnum opus opera that took three days to tell, with Freddie Mercury singing the lead role. And he would think how cute of us to do these tributes and think that we’ve heard the best that came from him. He’d probably say gosh haven’t you got something better to do?”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.