Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’ was released in Britain over 20 years ago. Though it might seem like a classic album these days, its place firmly fixed in the canon of teenager lament-rock, the reality around the time of release was very different, particularly in Britain. In 1994, the Californian was in no way well-received over here. He was seen as pretty uncool, if you’d even heard of him. Think James Blunt with a pinch of Nickelback. In a recent BBC documentary, booking agent Emma Banks remembers how his UK team tried to tell people how talented he was but record labels wouldn’t return their calls. “Loads of people just didn’t get it,” she says. But the common opinion of Buckley changed drastically during one afternoon – well, in five minutes – and the story behind it is fascinating.
One day in March, following a successful photo shoot, tour manager Steve Abbott drove a high-spirited Buckley to an afternoon show at the now defunct Greater London Radio. “To say he was excited was an understatement and this was his first proper English interview,” he says. The journey was slowed down by gridlocked traffic so he turned on GLR. Disaster. The presenter tallied Jeff Buckley’s slot by focussing entirely on Tim Buckley, his father. The relationship was complicated: apparently they’d only met each other once – for the first time when he was eight a four years before he died of an overdose – yet Jeff had always struggled to live under his legacy. “He lost his rag,” Abbott remembers. They entered the studio with Jeff in a stinking mood. It was hit or miss whether he was actually going to play and his answers during the interview were curt and defensive. A walk-out looked probable. Instead he fed his anger, frustration and disappointment into the most chilling performance of the album’s title track, ‘Grace’:
The radio presenter commented on how emotionally exhausting the performance appeared. “I was just getting some anger out,” he shot back.
That evening was Buckley’s first live show in London, at Bunjies, a folk cafe near Leicester Square. His team arrived and because of his radio performance the gig had rapidly sold out. Not only that, there was a queue snaking for yards down the street. They could’ve filled the room a number of times with the fans waiting outside. Booking agent Emma Banks took the initiative to find another empty venue down the road and asked if he could play there later that night. “Then it was pretty much like the pied piper,” she remembers. A procession of fans followed Buckley up through Denmark Street and he played a longer-than-usual show. “You knew sitting there that you were actually witnessing history,” remembers his American manager Dave Lory.
The clip shows Buckley’s voice at its most spine-chilling. For some kind of guide, he had the same vocal range as Pavarotti. Kim ‘Mirko’ Wilkins, a vocal student from the University of Queensland , described the technicality of his vocal talent and how extraordinary his control was:
Jeff Buckley was a light lyric tenor. His very different registers were blended marvellously. His chest, voice, and head voice were perfectly integrated. His falsetto fluctuated between falsetto and head voice, something most singers are very jealous of. His tessitura (or comfortable singing range) was between E below middle C. He also used his high A frequently. In other words, to the unacquainted, he had the same range as Pavarotti. Except, Jeff was very fond of the alto register, which he would exploit in falsetto, or coordinated head voice (a fuller, wailing type of voice). And his breath control was phenomenal – the sustained notes in “Mojo Pin” are very, very hard to sustain the way he does
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Here’s three more of Buckley’s greatest live vocal performances.
Mojo Pin, MTV, 1995
Dido’s Lament, Meltdown, 1995
Hallelujah, Chicago, 1005