It's probably just as well that pop starts cannot be assembled at a
pick'n'mix counter, or there would be dozens of Jeff Buckleys already: the
faultless lineage (son of troubled Troubador Tim - but you knew that
already); a voice that leaves most other singers trailing in its
quicksilver slipstream; looks that would give the young Paul Newman a
canter for his coinage; all gift-wrapped in the kind of critical acclaim
that, in normal circumstances, can usually be relied upon to take a hefty
detour around such seemingly mutually assured seduction.
Paradoxically, the statistics are, on paper at least, less thrilling;
Buckley's debut album, Grace, has sold a little over 30,000 copies in the
UK since its release last August, and tonight's European tour-opener at the
medium sized Tivoli Theatre would suggest only a relatively minor leap in
stature since last summer's 400-capacity Whelan's show.
Then there are those who will remind us that at the same age (28), Buckley
Sr was already dead, having recorded eight albums of artistic affluence.
Yet it's just the slow-burning build-up that seems to have got everyone so
transfixed, evidenced by the countless low-key, living-room-sized gigs the
solo Buckley has played over the last few years (documented on the
four-track, independently released EP, Live At Sin-è), or the ineffable
confidence that prompted him to assemble a band just three weeks before the
recording of his major label debut. A debut, furthermore, that belies its
stall-setting status to revel in its own joyous sweep, the sort of reckless
daring that allows a clutch of idiosyncratic covers (Leonard Cohen,
Benjamin Britten, and, after an anti-fashion, Elkie Brooks) to rub
shoulders with swooning hymns to the fault-lines to which the path of true
love must forever yield. Here, surely, was an artist for once seriously
prepared to rattle the bars of his own, albeit gilded, cage...
Unsurprisingly, Jeff Buckley is proud of Grace, but shrugs simply of its
end-of year-poll-winning positions: "There's no way you can predict the
effect of an album." His is a cavalier attitude fuelled by Marianis
Trench-deep reserves of self-confidence. His own horizons are not hard to
fathom: limitless would be the word that springs most swiftly to mind, if
only for the way he'll take a simple enquiry after the health of his,
frankly, hoarse voice: "sometimes you have to hammer it into shape.
There's a balance between being protectve with it and being wanton and
brutish", or the way he'll essay a whole stream of theories that call upon
Maria Callas, Robert Plant and Soungarden's Chris Cornell as witnesses to
the debilitating effects of "high Cs and all that stuff. It's just fucking
Buckley is equally sanguine about the possibilities that the steady growth
of the Grace fan club may well soon afford. Enormodomes must surely beckon.
"I love small places," he counters. "We can't really afford to do them
right now, but in the future I'd really like to do, like, residencies. Two
or maybe three nights in each city, in really small clubs.
"The only way I can see of changing a giant stadium into a really intimate
space'" he adds, "is by writing, like Hey Jude, where everybody knows it
and it goes right through you. So the writing would have to change. But I
like the environment of a small gig better. People come to clubs to drink
and to be with friends, to get laid and fall in love, or maybe to forget
and even get depressed. It's an emotional kind of place. But people go to
stadiums to eat hot dogs and get beer and buy souvenir T-shirts. It's not
the same thing."
Directly adjoining the tin-roofed playhouse (now showing: Happy Birthday
Dear Alice, "a hilarious new comedy by Bernard Farrell"), The Tivoli's
consequently post-thesp Saturday night stage time of 1am does little to
dissuade the hard-drinking denizens of Dublin. In a city where the cab
drivers are as likely to be grooving to Ry Cooder & Ali Farka Toure as they
are arguing along to talk radio, there's little point in drawing
conclusions from the staggeringly heterogeneous crowd. Clearly, music fans
all, there is nevertheless a hard core at the front who loudly proclaim
themselves to be disciples. That said, the unheralded arrival of Buckley
and his band comprising old friends, only recently tested in environments
like this (drummer matt Johnson, guitarist Michael Tighe and bassist Mick
Grondahl - as unfamiliar with the ugly stick as their leader, it should be
said) goes unnoticed until - house DJ finally silenced - the refusal of
Buckley's amplifier to spark into life eventually draws gazes to the stage,
eliciting the first of tonight's many "ooohs" as his taut, almost feral
frame settles, unfazed by this potentially embarrassing false start, on the
edge of the drum riser.
Power restored, the band launch into Dream Brother, the fabled paean to its
Buckley père, although according to its author concerning his close friend,
ex-Fishbone keyboards and trombone player Chris Dowd ("I just wanted to
sing about a man instead of a girl"). Immediately, Buckley's meuzzin wail
is disturbing the rafters and the audience is already going hipswayingly
apeshit at all this wobbly, warbling witchcraft.
So Real is just like the record, only louder: no mean feat considering the
serpentine, voluptuous sound of the album and the strictly conventional
line-up of two guitars, bass and drums upon which the Buckley voice is
currently prostrated. So its is with The Last Goodbye and Eternal Life:
the latter of all intents and purposes Helter Skelter re-cast with the
metallic precision of grunge. This,and "a new one", What Will You Say
(coincidenetly written by the former Fishboning friend), point to a
possible firming up of Buckley's predominantly eerie, edgy canon; signaling
too, perhaps, a resolve not to be forerver cast as the unkempt angel with
the gossamer vocals.
Nor does Buckley limit himself to merely showboating with that flummoxing
vocal range of his, instead often taking the very tenor of his voice and
casting it off in all directions, his head shaking so violently as to raise
doubts about the long-tern effects this style might have on that blessed
Lilac Wine, the oddity in Grace's already oddball trio of covers, is in
stark contrast, delivered in such hushed tones as to be effectively drowned
out by the audience "shhhhh'-ing the drinkers at the bar. Mojo Pin and
Grace both rage with the vocal triumphalism of someone for whom failure
seems to hold no special terror, while as if to counter these exterions
(and prefaced with a warning "I'm nursing a cold"), the headily spiralling
Lover, You Should Have Come Over opens out of a smouldering, gravely register.
It's a little after 2am when Buckley returns alone for the solitary encore,
finding the wide open spaces in John Cale's reading of Cohen's Hallelujah
before, and, just as the voice is finaly grounded ("I can't sing any more")
calling a halt to the proceedings with a graceful arc into the delighted
Upstairs afterwards, a phalanx of Euro rock hacks swiftly encircle the man
in the mouldering fake fur coat and busily feed him Grace CDs to be
autographed. Eventually, a close female friend offers an escape route to
the night, which the shattered and coughing Buckley gladly takes. How much
longer he'll be allowed such an easy exit from the clammering corporate
rock maw remains to be seen...