Friday, March 05, 2004


Album Review: Jeff Buckley, "Live at Sin-e Legacy Edition" (just the songs)

Obviously I'm a huge Jeff Buckley fan, and I love just about anything he ever did. Sadly, he only recorded one full album in his life, "Grace." Grace was an amazing accomplishment for a young musician like Jeff, and his fans back then looked forward to what he would bring in coming years. We don't have much of what he did in those years, but thankfully we do have some material. Probably the most important material out there is the recordings made in the famous "Sin-e sessions." Sin-e was one of Jeff's favorite NYC hangouts, a place where he performed once a week for a few hours. There was no cover charge, and very little publicity. It was just Jeff being a musician in a space where he could perform whatever he wanted, whether the audience cared or not. It was his way of working through his influences and stretching out his original material.

After he was signed to Columbia Records in 1993, Jeff agreed to have the company record a couple nights' worth of his Sin-e performances for posterity. These sessions resulted in the legendary "Live at Sin-e" EP, released before work began on "Grace." This was the world's introduction to Jeff Buckley, and it is much sought-after by hardcore Buckley fans. However, because the EP was only four songs long (Mojo Pin, Eternal Life, Je N'en Connais Pas La Fin, The Way Young Lovers Do), much of what was recorded on those nights was not released to the public.

That all changed in 2003. The Buckley Estate decided to put together a package of the recordings at Sin-e for the public to enjoy. What resulted was a 2-CD, 1 DVD "Legacy Edition" package with extensive liner notes, Sin-e era photographs of Jeff on the packaging and liner notes, and the original Sin-e EP cover art on the cover of the package. The CD's include all four original EP songs plus many other songs never before heard, as well as "monologues" of Jeffs banter in between his songs. This package of art and music was a special treat for all Jeff fans, and when I heard about it I eagerly anticipated it. When it arrived in early September, I listened to it all the way through and was astounded at the mastery to be found in the 2 CD's.

I now review "Live at Sin-e Legacy Edition," but with one small catch: I am only reviewing the songs on the album, not the monologues. Enjoy

Disc One

1) Be Your Husband

And the journey begins! This is just Jeff singing with his pure voice and stomping and clapping for rhythm. The song is a cover, I think traditional, and it's very bluesy. Jeff really shows off the power of his voice right off the bat. In particular, he shows a lot of soul and emotion such as you would find in many blues singers. I really think Jeff had the blues in him, and Live at Sin-e shows that well. "Be Your Husband" is just the first example of Jeff's blues side. Overall, it's just a powerful track that forces you to pay attention to nothing else but his voice and the emotion he's putting into the lyrics.

2) Lover, You Should Have Come Over

The first of the songs on Sin-e that would later appear on "Grace." This is quite a long version of the song, but it goes by fast in spite of the length. Jeff's guitar playing is quite good (on this and all the other songs). I'd describe it as smooth and slightly downcast due to the song content. This version was a work in progress - Jeff sings extra lyrics on this version (second verse) that did not appear in the "Grace" version. He sings this one slow and thoughtful, just like the lyrics would demand. The "Grace" version is slightly more emotional. This version sounds like he sang it right after a breakup, when his emotions are still a bit stunned. It's a sad, long, slow burning song and it's very good. I prefer the "Grace" version, but I like this one almost as much.

3) Mojo Pin

It's interesting to hear this with just a guitar. It's nothing really different from the "Grace" version except for the addition of the other instruments on "Grace." The drums, in particular, add a lot to the later version. Still, this is quite a good version of it, but nothing I haven't heard before. I like this version almost as much as the "Grace" version. This song was included on the original EP

4) Grace

Like "Mojo Pin," this song is quite different when played with just Jeff's telecaster. On its own, it's a good version, but it's not as smooth and powerful as the album version on "Grace." For me, the album version is the ultimate "Grace" and I've never heard one I liked better. I'm not sure how to describe the differences, except to say it's rougher musically, and Jeff sings a bit rougher on it too. His vocals are a bit more 'in the moment' as opposed to the smoother vocals on the album. And we're missing some of the high-pitched screams on the later version, which I loved. So, in conclusion, even though this version is pretty good, I still prefer the one on the "Grace" album. But that does not mean this is a bad version, just different.

5) Strange Fruit

Another blues-style song from Jeff. This one is a slow, cool, biting rendition of a song about lynching and racism from the Southern blues tradition (as far as I know). Jeff probably picked this up from listening to Billie Holiday, a favorite musician of his. "Strange Fruit" showcases Jeff's splendid blues guitar licks. In fact, it does so to the point where the long is almost too long. In my opinion, it takes a bit too long to really get "started," due to Jeff's extended jam on his guitar to start off the song. However, a closer listen does yield a treat if one pays attention to Jeff's brilliance of guitar playing.

This is not my favorite song on the album, but I do think the reaction to it depends on whether one listens closely and gives the song time to build or whether one is simply listening casually. In the latter case, the song IS a bit too long and could lead one to lose interest. But if you give the song your attention you'll find that it IS a good song, and that Jeff puts a lot of emotion and talent into it.

6) Night Flight

This is definitely one of my favorite tracks on Disc One. This is a cover of a Led Zeppelin tune (Led Zep was one of Jeff's biggest influences). Jeff takes an easygoing approach to this song, and lets his guitar really "sing" and make the listener happy. The free-flowing, jazzy guitar combined with Jeff's storytelling, happy, soaring vocals make this song very easy to listen to. It will lift your spirits - it definitely lifts mine. Jeff explores his vocal range on this song a little bit more than some of the earlier songs, at least to my ears. He sure could belt out a tune, and "Night Flight" shows that. The primal scream Jeff gives at the end is my favorite part of the track. I just LOVE his screams. His voice was a gift, and I really enjoy hearing him use it.

The expert guitar playing is an added treat. Guitar is the only thing on the album besides Jeff's voice, so there's no doubt that Jeff was good with his instrument. That's something that, in my opinion, didn't show off as much on "Grace" because it was a band effort. This is just Jeff and his guitar, so you can focus on how HE and he alone plays. He played it good, people!

7) If You Knew

Jeff slows it down on this track, with a lovely romantic ballad. Think "Hallelujah" or "Lilac Wine." No, this song is NOT as good as those two, but the style is similar. It's Jeff exploring the softer tones of his wonderful voice. Jeff wasn't all rock, all the time. He seemed to enjoy putting softer songs like this one in his repertoire. This is a good one, very dreamy and calming.

8) Unforgiven (Last Goodbye)

This was one of Jeff's biggest hits off "Grace," and it's presented here as a work in progress. Instead of the dramatic, operatic, tension-building, string-driven epic hit that it became, this song as Jeff sang it in these sessions was a slower, more reflective song of lost love. The song title was obviously different (Unforgiven instead of Last Goodbye). The simple presentation of Jeff's sad, regret-tinged vocals and lyrics over the sounds of his telecaster guitar gives the song a different tone than the eventual studio-recorded single of "Last Goodbye." I think it better matches the song lyrics. It's a more understated version, and I love it that way. Also, the last verse had yet to be written and Jeff adds a solemn part at the end ("Won't you forgive last goodbye....") that gives a sense of reflection and regret, true to the lyrics of the song. Overall this is a wonderful version that puts the emotions of the song at the forefront. Musically, Jeff's guitar is similar to what was recorded in the studio, but yet simpler because it's just the guitar. That simplicity drives the different mood of this version.

9) Twelfth of Never

Another slow nightclub-style song like "If You Knew." I don't really have much to say about it except to say it's a good, reflective, mood-setting romantic song that once again shows off Jeff's jazzy guitar chops and his ability to sing with a quiet tenderness.

10) Eternal Life

I LOVE this version of Eternal Life. Instead of the grunge version on "Grace" or the heavy metal version of his later live performances, this one is a simple, guitar driven lament on the state of the world. Jeff's guitar playing is excellent here, and it gives the song a much earthier, straightforward presence. Jeff sings it a bit slower and quieter than his later versions, which makes the lyrics the main attention-grabber. His singing has a haunting, droning quality on this one, and it really highlights the relationship between the man and his lyric content. This is just Jeff, his guitar, and his anger at the "ugly gentlemen." This is my favorite version of the song by far.

11) Just Like a Woman

This is the first of Jeff's Bob Dylan covers on "Live at Sin-e." Like his other Dylan performances here, he makes this a flowing, quiet story of a song. The main thing is the emotions expressed in his singing as he croons his way through the material. The guitar playing is solid, but nothing spectacular. Once again, Jeff sings straight to your head and your heart with his tender, soaring voice. I like it very much, and I think Jeff did a great job with Dylan's words.

12) Calling You

"Calling You" is another one of Jeff's quiet, tender romantic songs. I'm not quite sure what to say about it other than it's very touching and gives a sense of romance and longing. This is the time to sit back, listen, and let Jeff's sensual voice calm you. It's a nice, slow, smooth way to end the first disc.

Disc Two

1) Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai

This is a cover of a song by one of Jeff's influences, Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Jeff starts it out with some nice driving, Eastern-sounding guitar. Then he gets into the singing of it, and does the material justice with his soaring voice. He comes very close to screaming on some parts, and on other parts he sings subtle and soothing. I'm just impressed that he was able to memorize all these non-English words. It's quite obvious to me that Jeff is not merely covering the song, but that he did a bit of studying and listening to the music of Nusrat and thus projects the spirit of the Nusrat's music through his voice. At the end, he gets the crowd clapping along, and loses himself in the moment of the music. Listening to this song definitely made me lose myself in it. It's an excellent song. Different, maybe, but surely a wonderful "Jeff" moment and a highlight of the album.

2) If You See Her, Say Hello

Another Dylan cover, and another example of Jeff Buckley's blues side. He starts this long, epic song out with some awesome slide electric guitar. The song itself is soothing, subtle, and gentle. Jeff once again takes Dylan's material and makes it a quiet, touching musical journey of love. I love this song for sure, especially for the slide guitar and Jeff's way of telling a story but also making it emotionally powerful.

3) Dink's Song

By far, this is my absolute favorite song on the entire "Live at Sin-e" album. I think it may just be one of Jeff's best performances ever. It's a traditional southern or blues song (I'm not sure which) on which Jeff displays his very soulful vocals and his awesome, catchy, guitar playing. The song begins with some very bluesy playing and bluesy vocals. When Jeff really gets started, the song starts out quiet and flowing. As the song goes on, Jeff's playing becomes more dramatic and his voice gets more powerful. At the end, he's practically screaming and defintely lost in the music. The emotions come to a crescendo and the effect is uplifting and jaw dropping. "Dink's Song" is a great example of how to build a song and take it to higher and higher levels to bring out an emotional response from the listener. That's my opinion, anyhow, and my opinion of this song is that it's one of Jeff's best songs, on ANY album.

4) Drown In My Own Tears

Another blues song (that's three in a row so far!), actually a cover of Ray Charles if I'm correct. I'm not sure what to say about it other than Jeff once again uses his voice as best he can to get the blues out of the song. The best part of the song is the end where he repeats the phrase "drown in my own tears" with a passionate falsetto. An excellent song, a short song, but not QUITE a standout when played against "If you see her" and "Dink's Song."

5) The Way Young Lovers Do

This is a cover of a Van Morrison song, and it was on the original "Sin-e" EP. It's quite long, quite jazzy, quite rockin', and very attention-grabbing. Jeff's guitar playing here is very percussive and harsh, with bits of jazz improvisation. His singing is very interesting too. He doesn't really sing very many lyrics, but rather uses his voice in other ways - scat singing, crooning, screaming, moaning. The tone of this song is very different from the tone of the others. It's slightly dark and very powerful. Like some of the other songs, this one builds and builds until it gets very arresting and uplifting (if you can call it that) at the end. He takes you on a journey, and you just need to hold on and go where he wants you to. It's a place of energy and creativity, and a smack in the face rather than a gentle touch like some of the quieter songs on the album.

6) Je N'en Connais Pas La Fin

This is another cover (Edith Piaf I think) and it was also on the EP. It's very European sounding and dreamy. The chorus is in French, and Jeff's manages to make his guitar playing sound French as well. How he does it and how it sounds, I can't quite explain. This is a slow, playful song that shows off Jeff's French influences. He pulls it off well, but even so it's not one of my favorites.

7) I Shall Be Released

Yet another Dylan cover. This song isn't about love, but Jeff still sings it in his quiet, tender "Dylan song" voice. The chorus in particular is a very emotional, heart-wrenching part of the song. Overall it's very good and emotional, much like his other Dylan covers.

8) Sweet Thing

This is another Van Morrison cover, and it's one of my favorites. I've heard another version of it done by Jeff, and it was a bit faster and folkier. This one is more tender, quieter. Jeff's singing just strolls along, making each word sing out with gentle emotion. At the middle of the song, Jeff takes it down a notch and barely sings various words and phrases in the song. That part is just plain beautiful, and I think it's one of his best vocal performances on the album in addition to "Night Flight" and "Dink's Song." He forces you to listen, and makes gorgeous music with his voice. At the end, he again uses his voice in the opposite direction, with power to bring the song to a stirring conclusion. This is an absolutely wonderful, beautiful, heart-stirring song and it's one of the highlights for me on "Live in Sin-e."

9) Hallelujah

This is a great version of one of Jeff's most famous covers. The song starts out different than the "Grace" version, with some ringing guitar tones before he gets into the famous beginning Hallelujah notes. Overall, this is pretty good. Not necessarily better than the performance he gives on "Grace," but if it's better, that's because it's in a live setting. It's not too different from the "Grace" version, but there are a few moments near the end where he brings the emotion (and volume) in his voice up a notch. "Hallelujah" is one of the songs Jeff is best known for, and thus it's a fitting end to a superb live album.

A few words about the between-song "monologues":

Some of the monologues are quite interesting. There are some where Jeff will do improvisational covers of other songs and then talk to the audience about them. Sometimes he'll joke around and do impressions or make fun at his own expense. And a few of the monologues are so short that I wonder why they were even included. For completion, I guess, but the shorter ones hardly merit their own tracks. The best monologue, to me, is the one about Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan that shows Jeff sharing his enthusiasm for his influence with the intrigued Sin-e audience.

My favorite "Live at Sin-e" songs:

Be Your Husband, Night Flight, Unforgiven (Last Goodbye), Eternal Life, Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai, If You See Her Say Hello, Dink's Song, The Way Young Lovers Do, Sweet Thing.

My overall thoughts and favorite things about "Live at Sin-e":

- Jeff's guitar playing is incredible. At times it shows his blues influences, and at other times it simply brings your mind into the magic of the music. There's no doubt in my mind now that Jeff was a great guitar player. He is the ONLY guitar player on this album, so whatever he plays here is from his own talent.

- His singing is awesome too. Quiet and subtle at times, powerful and soaring at others, beautiful at all times. His voice is what sets his music apart from everything else.

- I'm sort of getting tired of hearing the "Grace" songs over and over, so the inclusion of many covers was very welcome. However, I think a couple of the "Grace" songs on here are better than the studio versions, and a few others are just as good as the studio versions. At the very least, it's interesting to hear what they sounded like before they were totally finished.

- Just an awesome album, second only to "Grace" in excellence, in my own opinion. "Live at Sin-e" is a must-have for any Jeff Buckley fan and I recommend it wholeheartedly to any music fan.

No comments: