Confession time: I never actually listened to Jeff Buckley during his lifetime.
In my younger and more narrow-minded years, I had somewhat rigid ideas of what music was supposed to be — “rock” sounded like this, men sang like this — and those parameters unfortunately did not include intricate, atmospheric guitar arrangements and a guy at a microphone delivering a breathtaking, acrobatic falsetto. Some punk rock sorts whose approval my high school self desperately craved dismissed Buckley as “whiny” and that sealed the deal. I didn’t bother with Grace, and I didn’t think about Buckley all that much, even when a few of my classmates were heartbroken to hear of his passing towards the end of my senior year.
Flash forward to the summer of 2000, and an empty day that my friend Josh and I spent driving aimlessly around the Philadelphia suburbs. He had a raucous, cathartic guitar jam exploding out of his car speakers, with that very distinctive, trembling voice at the forefront.
“What is this?” I asked.
“It’s Jeff Buckley,” Josh replied as “Eternal Life” played. “The new live album, Mystery White Boy.”
“I didn’t know Jeff Buckley was this much of a rocker.”
“Jeff Buckley was a lot of things.”
That succinct, extremely apt phrase sent me down a never-too-late rabbit hole of Buckley’s work — the sweaty and scintillating Live in Chicago DVD, the emotional and sensual Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, all the way back to his masterpiece Grace — and after taking it all in, and then putting it on repeat, I realized that those seven words from my friend couldn’t have better captured his identity as an artist.
Jeff Buckley did not believe in boundaries or binaries. Through his work, he challenged conventional ideas of genre and of gender, of sound and vision, of the album as an artistic artifact versus a commercial product. He wrote singles that were beautifully poppy, yet incredibly complex; he growled and spat as much as he sang like an angel; he explored intensely personal themes in the same breath as deeply spiritual ones.
There is no one thing that Jeff Buckley “was,” and that’s exactly what makes him so fascinating as an artist. Those rigid ideas that teenage me had? Buckley’d be the first person to tell you they’re bullshit. He listened to what he wanted to hear, wrote songs that he wanted to sing, and in doing so inspired a generation and beyond to be earnest, to be complex, and to be unashamed about it. 25 years on, that’s the reason his work endures.
On Friday, August 23rd, Grace — the only album released during Jeff Buckley’s lifetime — turns 25 years old, and in honor of that milestone, The Key was thrilled to work with World Cafe Live on curating a lineup of some of Philly’s best voices and biggest Buckley fanatics to perform the album from front to back. Ahead of the concert, we asked the performers their thoughts on what makes Grace great, what about Buckley inspires them, and this is what they said.