Mystery White Boy

We're much poorer without him, but still richer for this...

It’s unlikely that Jeff Buckley ever played a set like this while alive. He may’ve regularly been this brutally poignant, but he was never this concise. Blessed extravagantly with both a gift for heart-cracking songs and the physical means to breath glorious life into them: yes. Able to contain these gifts within the constraints of a regular rock show: not always, truth be told.

The first time this reviewer witnessed [a]Jeff Buckley[/a] with a band in tow was during a stifling summer evening at a small venue in Atlanta, Georgia in 1994. He played for nearly three hours. He started the show to a packed, enthralled room and left behind a handful of weary fans still reeling from a closing 20-minute cover of [a]Big Star[/a]’s gut-wrenching ‘Kangaroo’. “Once I start playing,” he later told [I]NME[/I], “I find it very hard to let go.”

No kidding. On his first trip to Britain, in ’93, he’d play back-to-back shows, without a band, and until he’d run out of songs. Then he’d take requests. Most people spend their whole lives tracking the kind of peace and happiness that [a]Jeff Buckley[/a] knew when he was was playing music for an audience.

It meant, though, that his shows could be a mixture of divine beauty and indulgent meanderings. It’s testament, then, to the dedication and research of his mother, Mary Guibert, and guitarist, Michael Tighe, that ‘Mystery White Boy’ captures only the former and so perfectly distils the essence of Buckley‘s wondrous talents.

The record that they’ve compiled is culled from the back-to-back world tours that Buckley and his band (Tighe, bassist Mick Grondahl and drummer Matt Johnson) undertook between the release of his studio debut ‘Grace’ in ’94 and their return to a Tennessee studio to demo songs for his second, uncompleted album in ’96. History records instead of this aborted album only Buckley‘s drowning on May 29, 1997, off the Wolf River Marina in Memphis. He was 30.

The tragedy of his interrupted life naturally casts an eerie shadow over ‘Mystery White Boy’, but not to the extent that any of its joy or magic is extinguished. This, truly, is one of the great modern live albums. The field may not be littered with rivals for this crown but only Nirvana‘s ‘Unplugged’ can compare. ‘Mystery White Boy’, though, presents Buckley and his band in a vividly electric context.

It delivers too, in the form of three previously unreleased songs, a depressingly tantalising glimpse of what great future gifts Buckley would’ve delivered had he lived. The first of these, ‘I Woke Up In A Strange Place’, is a clipped garage charge through the debris of a lost night in the mode of ‘Eternal Life’ (which also makes an electrifying appearance from the same gig in Melbourne in February ’96 that makes up nearly half the album).

‘Mood Swing Whiskey’ – also from that Melbourne gig – is like some new wave Brecht/Weill number, but of this new trio it’s ‘What Will You Say’ that tugs hardest on the strings of the heart. Through a crescendo of aching guitars Buckley operatically bellows, “Father do you hear me?/Do you know me?/Did you even care?/What will you say when you take my place?”. It’s a soaring, searing vocal performance that’s most closely matched by a fabulous ‘Grace’ from the same show. It’ll do you in.

Indeed, the listener risks tears and heartbreak at almost every turn – and not just if one of Buckley‘s many imitators (joke: what’s Coldplay‘s favourite drink? ‘Lilac Wine’ – sorry). If Jeff‘s sweet vocal quiver during an extra-romantic ‘Last Goodbye’ doesn’t get you, then ‘Dream Brother’ and ‘Mojo Pins’‘s extreme spookiness will.

And just when you think you’re over it, Buckley closes the show from Seattle by segueing a gentle, wistful ‘Hallelujah’ into ‘I Know It’s Over’ by The Smiths. “Oh mother”, he sings, beautifully, “I can feel the soil falling over my head”. It’s ingenious, devastating and sweet all rolled into one – just like the little man himself. Here was a dude who could deliver his voice to so many emotional addresses but, like Thom Yorke, resisted using it as a virtuoso instrument, and whose music invoked such a heady and heavy atmosphere. On top of that, he and his band rocked hard.

We’re much poorer without him, but still richer for this.