Jeff Buckley was one of the definitive artists of 90’s alternative rock. A musician who seemed both of his time and also of a tradition started in the 60’s. His career was painfully brief. He only released one studio album before his early death. A second was being prepared by Buckley and the unfinished demos were released after his passing. Still, the posthumous releases are generally of high quality unlike some other ransacking of famous musicians vaults.
Jeff Buckley possessed an undeniable musical talent, great technique and a flair for dramatic and emotional performing. His voice is perhaps the most striking element in his music. His style of singing reaches a rare balance between bombast and intimacy. Similarly, Buckley’s musical influences are very diverse, from the large sound of 70’s rock to the confessional folk singing of the ’60s. Much like Buckley’s own music, the common thread in choosing his influences seems to be the presence of passion and soulfulness.
Buckley also possessed the talent of covering songs in a way that very often resulted in reinventing the music in his own image. Recently the Buckley estate has released a new album of posthumous material, You and I, containing mostly cover songs recorded prior to the making of Buckley’s sole studio album Grace.
It’s odd to consider just how brief Jeff Buckley’s career ending up being. It’s trajectory was simple. Buckley entertained the idea of becoming a singer. He had the last name and face that resembled that of a famous one already. Arguably, Jeff possessed an even more remarkable vocal instrument.
Soon he had talked himself into a weekly solo gig at Sine. He was still figuring things out. Would he be a solo performer, have a band, play rock, folk, world music? In the mean time he used his club date as a laboratory. His own compositions were in the works. In the meantime, any song that fit his vision were fair game. Songs by Bob Dylan, Elton John, or Van Morrison, would be stretched and reworked into music theater tragedies for the alt rock generation.
By the time Jeff Buckley’s time was over he had conquered the over songs, branding them with a voice that was unmistakably his. Jeff Buckley’s covers are not merely a distraction, but powerful moment in his catalog.
The most famous example of song reinterpretation is, of course, that of Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah. While the original version is quite famous on its own, it’s, of course, Buckley’s version that gets quoted in thousands of covers, of singers attempting to prove their vocal chops. And because Buckley did not release a lot of original music due to the short length of his career, many of the covers that were caught on tape fill in the blanks in the story of the great musician. We’re taking a look at 10 of the greatest covers that Jeff Buckley performed, which aren’t Hallelujah.
10. Once I was (originally by Tim Buckley)
Tim Buckley, Jeff’s biological father was a folk singer-songwriter of the ’60s. Jeff did not get to meet his father, as Tim passed away young, from a drug overdose. In 1991 Jeff Buckley was just beginning on his road of becoming a singer. He had been a guitar player in many bands whose styles varied from hardcore punk to progressive rock. In 1991 Jeff played a tribute organized for Tim Buckley. The event organizers knew very little of Jeff and they were in for a nice surprise. The young singer ended his 4 song set with the moving Once I was.
9. We all fall in love sometimes (originally by Elton John)
Jeff Buckley opted to cover Elton John’s classic We all fall in love sometimes, in a rendition that does not stray far from the original in tone and arrangement, instead of focusing on the songs delicate beauty. This cover version was never officially released, having instead been included on unofficial bootlegs for years, and, also, floating around the internet.
Besides his singing that displayed flawless technique, Jeff developed a unique style of guitar playing. Playing coffee houses and performing mostly covers at the very beginning, Buckley would choose to rarely play an acoustic guitar. Instead, he performed using a Telecaster electric guitar and created a fluid style inspired by folk and by piano arrangements. A great example of this is this Elton John cover.
8. Sweet Thing (originally by Van Morrison)
Buckley did his apprenticeship as a performer in coffee houses, especially at Sin-e. Some of the highlights of those performances have been released in the past. Many of the songs show Buckley stretching out the length of the songs, rediscovering them and reinterpreting them. The singing stretches his considerable vocal range, as Buckley moves from hushed sounds to roars with equal ability.
It’s fitting that Buckley would feel such an affinity with Van Morrison and his monumental debut album. Sweet thing stands as a testament of the Irish singer’s monumental ability and inventiveness. The power of transcendence reverberates from Morrison’s great singing, as it does here on Jeff Buckly’s worthy cover of the song.
7. Yeh jo halka saroor hai (originally by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan)
Buckley was a big admirer of Qawwali, a type of sufi devotional music. Khan is perhaps the most well known singers of this genre. In fact, Buckley had so much admiration for the singer that he referred to him as “his Elvis”. He would also cover Khan’s music in a rare instance of of a Western musician covering the music of Eastern performers.
6. Night Flight (originally by Led Zeppelin)
Led Zeppelin was Buckley’s favorite band. His mom talks about how the young Jeff saved up his allowance money to buy a guitar, dreaming to become a guitar player like Jimmy Page. Once he bought the guitar he proceeded to learn all the parts from the Physical Graffiti album.
It was a case of mutual respect as Robert Plant and Jimmy Page came to see Buckley perform live once his first album had been released. Page commented on Buckley’s impeccable singing style and remarked more recently how there were even talks of the two collaborating. Interestingly, Buckley seemed to admire Zeppelin not only for the sound of their music, but also for what be perceived as honesty, a trait rarely signaled by critics in Zep’s career that chose to focus more on the bombast of their music.
5. Lilac Wine (originally written by James Shelton)
A song made famous by the performance of Nina Simone. Buckley’s touching cover appeared on the debut record (and only completed studio material) Grace. Jeff Buckley’s album was received with great reviews and some initial attention from record buying public. The album has gone on to earn an almost legendary status and Buckley earned a reputation as a sort of “singer’s singer” with many famous singers listing him as a large source of inspiration. In fact contemporary musicians like Rufus Wainwright, Brandon Flowers (the Killers), Chris Martin (Coldplay) or Thom Yorke (Radiohead) have all praised Jeff Buckley’s music.
4. Alligator Wine (originally by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins)
A hilarious outtake from the Grace sessions proving that Buckley wasn’t all melancholy and angst at all times. The recording is made all the more interesting as it shows just how elastic Buckley’s voice was and showcases the singer’s great vocal control.
3. Je n’en connais pas la fin (originally by Edith Piaf)
Another song showing Buckley’s diverse influences, including his love of great female singers. Buckley also spoke highly of singers like Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith. The song features Jeff’s soft singing and roundabout like guitar lines complimenting it.
2. I know it’s over (originally by the Smiths)
Jeff Buckley also declared his love for the Smiths. Traces of Johnny Marr’s style of playing can be seen in Buckley’s own guitar style. His admiration for the group was so large that at one point during a concert he declared that the “60’s are bullshit, 70’s almost big big bullshit, 80’s I don’t need to tell you; except for The Smiths maybe“. His version of I know it’s over stands as an incredibly haunting and powerful piece of music.
1. Mama you been on my mind (originally by Bob Dylan)
Jeff Buckley seemed at his best when being honest and emotional. That came naturally to him. And it was a rare thing in the context of 90’s alternative rock where most musicians were busy creating an image of detachment. Buckley had the rare ability of being able to capture the attention of the audience while at times singing in almost a whisper.
There have been many covers of this Bob Dylan lost gem, but this perhaps the one that does the words and music the most justice. Bitter sweet, fragile, yet somehow hopeful, much like Jeff Buckley’s own musical output. The song also has Buckley showing restraint in his singing while the performance is just as dazzling and expressive.