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Credit: BBC

How Jeff Buckley delivered one of rock's greatest vocal performances

Next week marks the anniversary of one of the most widely beloved albums ever released. Jeff Buckley‘s Grace was released on August 23, 1994, to an initial lukewarm reaction. However, as the years since its release and the death of Jeff Buckley pass us by, Grace, has garnered a hallowed critical reputation.

It is the album’s lead single and title track that gives us our story today. The classic we know today as ‘Grace’ stemmed from an instrumental piece called ‘Rise Up to Be’ by Buckley’s longtime collaborator, Gary Lucas. Buckley penned the lyrics after being inspired by saying goodbye to his girlfriend at the airport on a rainy day, and this yearnful melancholy fed into the vocal melody, which came naturally. Retrospectively, Buckley described the song as, “about not feeling so bad about your own mortality when you have true love.”

In a 2014 BBC 4 radio show The Grace of Jeff Buckley, Buckley’s UK booking agent, Emma Banks, remembers Buckley and his team’s struggle in finding a record label after the release of his now-iconic debut EP, Live at Sin-é. Initially, UK record labels wouldn’t even return their calls. She recalled that “loads of people just didn’t get it.”

This wouldn’t be the case forever, though. This is the story of how Jeff Buckley delivered his most powerful and captivating vocal performance on a live version of ‘Grace’. Rewinding back to March 1994, that’s where Buckley would make his enduring impression on the world. 

After a busy morning at a photoshoot, Buckley’s tour manager Steve Abbott drove an excitable Buckley to an afternoon show at Greater London Radio (GLR). Abbot remembers the day fondly: “To say he was excited was an understatement… this was his first proper English interview.” 

All didn’t go to plan, though. On the way to GLR, Abbott and Buckley listened to the radio station whilst in the car, but the presenter kept discussing the upcoming show with him as “Tim Buckley’s son”, she “didn’t even mention the word Jeff”. Abbott remembers that Jeff Buckley “lost his rag”. This furious passion was understandable for Buckley as his relationship with his father was practically nonexistent. He was so angry he kicked the radio, and it broke. For those unaware, Tim Buckley was one of the premier American folk singers of the ’60s and early ’70s but an absent father to Jeff.

However, he died in 1975, aged only 28, from a heroin overdose. Jeff was nine at the time. Furthermore, Jeff claimed to have only met him once, when he was eight years old, as his parents had divorced before he was born. The spectre of Tim Buckley’s legacy always loomed over Jeff, and for the first part of his life, he went by the name of Scott Moorhead, pinching from his middle name and his stepfather’s surname. 

They finally got to GLR after being stuck in major traffic owing to a car crash on London’s iconic Baker Street. Jeff was, of course, in a terrible mood. In fact, Abbott feared he’d walk out on the programme. In a testament to the ethos of his artistry, Buckley channelled his lifetime of pent up emotions into his performance of ‘Grace’. His American manager, Dave Lory, lamented, “he knew how to work a room with his voice, there was just this rawness that would come out of him. Something about his childhood. I only asked once, and he said, ‘I really don’t wanna get into it.'”

Abbott remembers, “this was Jeff Buckley for the first time really making an impression. He just went for it.” It was Jeff Buckley at his most naked. In his incredibly sustained falsetto, his emotions are laid bare. He even let out a tired sigh afterwards. Afterwards, the radio presenter asked him if that was emotionally exhausting, to which he replied, “I was just getting some anger out.”

The day didn’t end there, though. That evening Buckley played his first London show at a cafe called Bunjies near Leicester Square. The gig was sold out. Prior to the radio appearance, this was unthinkable. Allegedly, the demand was so high, and there was a lengthy queue going right the way down the street. Emma Banks remembers that “there were as many people, if not more, standing outside the gig than there were in the gig”. Lory perfectly captured the atmosphere of the evening “you knew sitting there, that you were actually witnessing history.”

The beauty of Buckley’s live performance of ‘Grace’ and the whole mood of The Grace of Jeff Buckley is that it shows the true measure of the man. A complex individual, his feelings permeated his work over his brief career. His vocal range remains nothing short of emotionally affecting, particularly when added to the fact that he tragically drowned in 1997, aged just 30, in a swimming accident. The real tragedy is that he never escaped the shadow of his father. What he did do, though, was leave us with a body of work that he will continue to live through forevermore. Live recordings such as this performance of ‘Grace‘ are the best testament to his unmatched talent and artistry. He lives on through this acoustic rendition of the track that is undoubtedly one of rock’s greatest ever vocal performances.

Listen to the performance of ‘Grace’, below.

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