Un­com­mon Ground’s Jeff Buck­ley trib­ute show cel­e­brates 20 years


Ev­ery­one al­ways re­mem­bers that it was snow­ing the night Jeff Buck­ley played Un­com­mon Ground in Fe­bru­ary of 1994. It was the type of big, fat, heavy snowflakes that pressed up against the win­dows of the then small cof­fee­house off Grace Street in Wrigleyville, block­ing the out­side world from the myth­i­cal per­for­mance that, to this day, only a few peo­ple — 30 tops — can truth­fully say they were there.

It was Buck­ley’s first- ever show in Chicago, months be­fore he’d re­lease his only com­pleted stu­dio al­bum, “Grace,” which has now be­come syn­ony­mous for the epic, haunt­ing cover of Leonard Co­hen’s “Hal­lelu­jah,” and three years be­fore he would pass be­fore his time in an ac­ci­den­tal drown­ing in Mem­phis. Buck­ley only played Chicago a few times af­ter that, in­clud­ing a rau­cous drunken spell at the Green Mill in Novem­ber of that year and a gig at Metro in ’ 95, which was recorded for a live DVD and posthu­mously re­leased. But noth­ing lived up to that first night in the cof­fee­house.

“We had the fire­place go­ing and the win­dows were all steamed up. You could hear a pin drop be­tween the tin­kling of cof­fee cups and tea­spoons,” said Un­com­mon Ground co- owner Michael Cameron. “It was whis­per- quiet as [ Jeff ] was just blow­ing ev­ery­body away with his set. It was one of those mo­ments when you can look back in time and say, wow that was re­ally mag­i­cal. Ev­ery­one in that room could agree we just wit­nessed some-

“There’s al­ways a spir­i­tual sa­cred rea­son peo­ple have for be­ing touched by Jeff. He was that kind of per­former.” — Mary Guib­ert, Jeff Buck­ley’s mother

thing amaz­ing.”

Cameron ( along with his wife He­len) can still re­call the pal­pa­ble en­ergy of that wist­ful show some 23 years later. It con­tin­ues to lives on in me­mo­riam at an­nual trib­ute shows at the venue ev­ery year, on Buck­ley’s birth­day, where mu­si­cians from Chicago and around the world in­ter­pret Buck­ley’s work, with pro­ceeds do­nated to The Old Town School of Folk Mu­sic schol­ar­ship fund to help the next gen­er­a­tion of great song­writ­ers. This year marks the 20th an­niver­sary of the sold- out trib­utes, which will con­tinue to be live- streamed on Face­book to meet the de­mand ( at one point last year there were nearly 120,000 view­ers).

As the orig­i­nal tal­ent booker for Un­com­mon Ground in the ‘ 90s, Cameron can re­mem­ber feeling a phys­i­cal re­ac­tion when he lis­tened to the demo cas­settes of Buck­ley that were passed along to him by Jam Pro­duc­tions’ Nick Miller. “I thought, man what an amaz­ing voice, es­pe­cially with all those high notes he was hit­ting,” Cameron re­calls. “I called back Nick right away and was like, ‘ Yeah let’s def­i­nitely book this kid.’”

Buck­ley was vir­tu­ally un­known at the time though he had made the rounds in the New York un­der­ground. Af­ter get­ting signed to Columbia Records, he de­cided to em­bark on a small, in­ti­mate tour to try to build some or­ganic at­ten­tion. It was just Buck­ley and his driver/ tour man­ager/ sound en­gi­neer Reg­gie Grif­fith that rolled through town.

“Reg­gie and Jeff showed up, with just a gui­tar in hand. We had a tiny mix­ing board and es­sen­tially Jeff just wanted to play through his gui­tar amp. He was also record­ing all the shows so he set up his record­ing rig as well and, af­ter a quick sound check we started,” re­calls Cameron who can still re­mem­ber cel­e­brat­ing the gig with Buck­ley with a bottle of red wine af­ter all was said and done.

Al Rose, a lo­cal mu­si­cian and owner of An­der­son­ville’s Kopi: A Trav­eler’s Café, was in at­ten­dance. “Jeff just stood up there with his gui­tar, no muss no fuss and sang his tunes, and I re­mem­ber be­ing re­ally taken by his voice. It was this in­ter­est­ing com­bi­na­tion of the high range of Robert Plant with the soul of Van Mor­ri­son,” Rose re­calls. “He did a cou­ple of cov­ers that stand out to me. An Edith Piaf cover and then of course Leonard Co­hen’s ‘ Hal­lelu­jah’ that he be­came known for. The thing that was so cool about that Un­com­mon Ground show was that there was no buzz on it, no one knew who he was he came through, and now we still talk about him.”

Buck­ley’s mother Mary Guib­ert says her son would be the last one to “char­ac­ter­ize any of his per­for­mances, es­pe­cially in those solo days. … He would think how quaint of us to still think the stuff he did so early in his ca­reer was still lis­ten­able,” she says, laugh­ing, though not agree­ing. “There’s al­ways a spir­i­tual sa­cred rea­son peo­ple have for be­ing touched by Jeff. He was that kind of per­former.”

Though she was not in at­ten­dance on that night in ’ 94, Guib­ert has grown close to the Camerons and has been a guest at a few of the dates over the course of time, in­clud­ing last year for her son’s 50th birth­day. She will re­turn this year.

“It’s al­ways such a great event with amaz­ing per­form­ers who show up from all over the world and just throw their heart at the moon. They’re all un­signed, to­tally in the Jeff Buck­ley tra­di­tion, and have gone on to get record­ing con­tracts and have suc­cess­ful ca­reers,” Guib­ert says. “The way that Michael brings mu­si­cians through Un­com­mon Ground and gives them an op­por­tu­nity for a spring­board, I think that’s what makes this trib­ute re­ally more mean­ing­ful,” she says ad­mit­ting that the at­ten­tion of shows like these give her an idea of how well she is do­ing with han­dling the le­gacy.

Guib­ert is the head of Buck­ley’s es­tate and men­tions sev­eral key projects in the works in­clud­ing the much- an­tic­i­pated of­fi­cial biopic, which “is get­ting closer to be­com­ing a re­al­ity,” as well as sign­ing a con­tract with the Lyric Ham­mer­smith The­ater in Lon­don to put up a pro­duc­tion of “The Last Good­bye,” which is Shake­speare’s “Romeo & Juliet” ac­com­pa­nied by Buck­ley’s mu­sic that also had a run in the States. There is also an up­com­ing book, helmed by David Brown ( who wrote the 2000 bi­og­ra­phy about Jeff and his fa­ther Tim Buck­ley, the psych folk singer that also died at a young age), that will offer a peek at some of the younger Buck­ley’s jour­nal pages for the first time.

Of the on­go­ing in­ter­est with Buck­ley and his work, Guib­ert can only as­sess that it was be­cause her son re­mained ahead of his time. “Here he was this quirky guy dressed in mus­tard stained T- shirts and did not own a comb or brush. He was a vagabond kid com­ing through life singing Edith Piaf songs and was so in­tent on break­ing all the rules. I think it took cul­ture a while to catch up with him, and thank­fully there’s ways we still can,” she says with her own thoughts about what we missed out on the 20 years he’s been gone.

“It would be a cu­ri­ous thing to have him come back at this point. I try to con­cep­tu­al­ize him walk­ing through the door, which would mean he’s been alive all this time on an­other plane of con­scious­ness, and I’d have to tell you what­ever he had ac­com­plished on other side would far sur­pass any­thing he did here,” she fan­ta­sizes. “He would def­i­nitely al­ready have col­lab­o­rated with all his heroes and writ­ten a magnum opus opera that took three days to tell, with Fred­die Mer­cury singing the lead role. And he would think how cute of us to do these trib­utes and think that we’ve heard the best that came from him. He’d prob­a­bly say gosh haven’t you got some­thing bet­ter to do?”


2OTH AN­NIVER­SARY JEFF BUCK­LEY TRIB­UTE CON­CERTS, 6 p. m. Nov. 16- 17, Un­com­mon Ground, 3800 N. Clark, $ 55 ( Nov. 17 is sold out); un­com­mon­ground. com Jeff Buck­ley


Un­com­mon Ground owner Michael Cameron.

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