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Feature Thu Nov 15 2007

Living with Grace: A Tribute

In May of 1997, a young and talented musician by the name of Jeff Buckley waded into the Wolf River near Memphis and never returned. He left behind one finished album, limitless potential and legions of passionate and heartbroken fans. In the ten years since that tragic day, music lovers around the world have organized yearly festivals, tribute shows to honor and channel his spirit.

In Chicago, the warm and comforting Wrigleyville cafe, Uncommon Ground, carries the torch. On a cold and snowy night in February of 1994, Buckley played a legendary set there that was lauded "Best Concert of the Year" by Greg Kot and sparked a unique relationship between restaurant and music. At this time every year, to coincide with Jeff's birthday on November 17th, musicians and fans gather at Uncommon Ground to play songs, tell stories and remember him for everything that he left behind.


Poster by Erin Armstrong

Personally, I cannot exactly recall the first time I heard Jeff Buckley's music. I know the song was "Last Goodbye", that's for sure, and it's easy to remember why I fell in love with it. At fifteen, I had no emotional experiences that would help me relate specifically to a song about spurned love. But, like all fifteen year olds, I was scared and confused and lonely and that song comforted me. I loved the rolling baseline, the earth-shattering falsetto at the top, the background strings and those pounding drums. But mostly, I loved the passion, the energy, the hurt, the pain, the way he yearned to be kissed out of desire (which I could definitely relate to). So from there, after playing it over and over and over again on the mix tape my friend made me, I bought his first album, Grace, and for me the rest is history.


Grace became "my" album, that one from high school that we all have to call home when everything else is just too much for us. I took it everywhere I went—on family trips up north, in my backpack to sneak listens between classes, lodged discreetly in my first car. I distinctly remember one long, wintry car trip up north in my parents' blue minivan: I holed up in the way back seat, covered myself with blankets and headphones and listened to Grace the whole ride, staring out the back window as snow pounded the forests of Northern Michigan. I had never heard anything like it. I recognized, of course, that it was not the first time that someone picked up a guitar and played songs, but it seems now like my love affair with music began with Grace. Moments from that album still haunt me: the stark pause before "Eternal Life" kicks in, the riff that begins "So Real", the stormy-night organ on "Lover, You Should've Come Over", and that chord (you know the one) in "Hallelujah". Ten years after his death, despite all of the brilliant live releases and LP reissues and greatest hits packages and that beautifully unfinished second album, I still return to the purity of Grace. It's still a place for me to call home.

For those readers who aren't familiar with Jeff Buckley or don't see what the fuss is about, please understand that his influence is massive. Rock'n'roll—particularly indie rock—tends to be dominated by coolness and indifference, especially in the last twenty years, where artists struggle mightily to come up with a hip name and a fresh sound. Jeff Buckley played rock'n'roll simply. He played the music that had influenced him and wrote songs that he wanted to hear, and he put passion and heart into each one of them. His music is characterized by emotion, raw and honest, and that terrifies people who seek music as entertainment, rather than art that makes them examine themselves. The obsession of Jeff Buckley's fans is based on that. We understand or try to understand fear and mortality and we come to his music because we hear our own souls in his voice. For this 10th Anniversary Jeff Buckley Tribute Festival, we're not just celebrating the music. We're marking time. We're marking the last ten years in our own lives, ten years spent listening and feeling his songs, ten years wishing there could be more, ten years closer to where he is right now.


I interviewed a few of the artists playing the tribute shows this weekend. I sent a few questions to them via email. Their responses were wonderful and they made me smile.

GB: What inspires you about Jeff Buckley's music, both in your own music and in your personal life?

Casey McPherson, Lead Vocals, Guitar and Keys for Alpha Rev: When I first heard Jeff sing, I felt like I heard someone for the first time that wasn't afraid to be beautiful…not cool, not hot, not industry standard…just beautiful. It continues to give me confidence to look for true beauty in my own music and life.

Catherine Harrison: I saw Jeff perform in Vancouver in 1994 and was immediately struck by his presence, the passion and the unique way he blended pop, jazz, rock, blues...amazing. I have since organized and hosted the Toronto Buckley Tribute shows, and am inspired by the people who come together to celebrate his creative gifts.

Ryan Groff: The spirit he kept locked in his music is what I've looked after the most. He inspires me to only make the music I feel, both in my ears and in my body, I should be making. The live recordings I've heard are what really drives this home for me. He loved every song he wrote, I think, and just wanted to play these pieces of himself to as many people as he could.

Dorothy Scott: Jeff Buckley's music is divine, powerful yet gentle and so beautiful. Not only was he a great singer but he was also a great songwriter. His voice has all of the best qualities in it as well as being totally unique. One gets a very complete feeling while listening to his records. He inspired with his dedication…and his intelligence. He was all about taking risks and stretching his talents as far as they would take him. I think he went further than any other musician out there. Every once in awhile I push myself into these places…I can only hope to be half as dedicated as he was.

Spencer Michaud: Jeff Buckley has been a spiritual companion for me and one of my greatest teachers. He was the reason I started singing. I really absorbed his music for a solid two or three years! I was obsessed! Jeff's music was introduced to me by a first love and he just seemed to be singing everything that I was feeling at the time. He allowed me to be comfortable with having a higher voice and taught me a great deal about the use of dynamics in music. I really related to his story as well. There was just this massive mythology built up around him and I was definitely drawn in by it. He was like this mystical being from another realm! But as you learn more about him and his life, what really stands out is his humanity and vulnerability. That's what makes Jeff and his music so amazing. His willingness to expose himself, the raw power contrasted with subtle beauty. He really brought you through the whole range of emotion. I actually was inspired to make a bit of a pilgrimage to Memphis to see where Jeff spent his last days. I drove down 10 hours from Michigan and spent time by the Wolf River and kind of paid a last respect to Jeff. It was very emotional.


Poster by Erin Armstrong

GB: What attracts you to playing the tribute shows in Chicago?

Catherine Harrison: I love Chicago! Uncommon Ground is a great venue—intimate and very supportive of musical and visual creativity.

Ryan Groff: The first time I played Uncommon Ground I quickly saw how important Jeff Buckley was to Uncommon Ground. I'd heard that he'd played there, but playing there filled me in a bit more. The press clippings, the paintings of Jeff, the posters from past tribute shows…this showed me just how deep UG's love for him runs. So, to play the Chicago tribute means being invited into this group of people who respect this music and this musician.

Dorothy Scott: I like playing at Uncommon Ground for the tribute shows. There is always a lot of love and respect going around from one musician to the next. It is like he is there with us sitting back and listening and smiling. I have always enjoyed the vibe that is created and the magic that always seems to happen.

Spencer Michaud: The tribute shows really gives you a chance to celebrate Jeff and connect with people who were also touched by his music. I played here last year and it was an extremely moving and healing experience. The collective energy of all the performers was very loving and powerful. Uncommon Ground was great as well! They really make you feel at home, I had never felt as well taken care of at as show.

GB: Why is Jeff Buckley's music important? Is his significance self-contained to the world of music? Or does his appeal say anything about the larger sphere of popular culture?

Casey McPherson: It's important as a statement to other artists. To go with your heart, not down the wide road of greed and flash. In this day and age, it's very difficult to find an emotional musician that doesn't trapped in the world of the pretty pop package.

Ryan Groff: His music seems important because he was doing something musically that no one else was really doing…how he used his voice, how he emulated so many musicians from the past, without "ripping them off". I think people liked his sexiness, his Robert Plantish appeal, but Robert Plant never backed up his look and his voice with guitar chops AND innovative songwriting.

Dorothy Scott: Jeff Buckley's music is important because it is. There are not a lot of musicians that can really put a mark in time like he did. There are so many artists out there now trying to write like him and sing like him. Everyone that hears his music feels the greatness in it and the purpose. He is huge in Japan and Australia and should be huge here in the States. It's a shame that he has to be like a cult hero here. . .I think that this might change soon as we better our artistic sensibilities as a whole. We can only hope!

Spencer Michaud: It's really just his ability to make you feel something! His humor, his anger, his longing, it's all things we experience. Artists like Jeff make it ok for us to feel these things right along with him. That's what made him special, his ability to make us feel like he felt. He really had this beautiful transcendent androgyny about him as well. He seemed to be able to sing from a genderless spirit that really enhanced his ability to reach people and communicate eternal ideas.

The 10th Annual Jeff Buckley Tribute Festival takes place this weekend, Nov. 16 to Nov. 18. All nights at Uncommon Ground are, unfortunately, sold out. But Sunday, the Metro is hosting a special early show at 5pm to accommodate a larger crowd. Tickets are $10. Artists for this year include April Smith, Old Dog Music, Alpha Rev, Anna d'Aloisio, Ryan Groff, Dorothy Scott, Spencer Michaud and Catherine Harrison.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »


  Chicago Music Media

Alarm Magazine
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Boxx Magazine
Brooklyn Vegan Chicago
Can You See The Sunset From The Southside
Chicago Reader Music
Chicagoist Arts & Events
Chicago Music Guide
Chicago Singles Club
Country Music Chicago
Cream Team
Dark Jive
The Deli Chicago
Jim DeRogatis
Fake Shore Drive
Gowhere Hip Hop
The Hood Internet
Jaded in Chicago
Largehearted Boy
Little White Earbuds
Live Fix Blog
Live Music Blog
Loud Loop Press
Oh My Rockness
Pop 'stache
Pop Matters
Resident Advisor
Sound Opinions
Sun-Times Music Blog
Theft Liable to Prosecution
Tribune Music
UR Chicago
Victim Of Time
WFMU's Beware of the Blog
Windy City Rock


Abbey Pub
Andy's Jazz Club
Aragon Ballroom
Auditorium Theatre
Beat Kitchen
Bottom Lounge
Buddy Guy's Legends
The Burlington
California Clipper
Concord Music Hall
Congress Theater
Cubby Bear
Double Door
Elbo Room
Empty Bottle
Green Mill
The Hideout
Honky Tonk BBQ
House of Blues
Kingston Mines
Lincoln Hall
Logan Square Auditorium
Mayne Stage
The Mutiny
Old Town School of Folk Music
Park West
The Promontory
Red Line Tap
Reggie's Rock Club & Music Joint
The Riviera
Thalia Hall
The Shrine
Symphony Center
Tonic Room
Uncommon Ground
The Vic
The Whistler

  Labels, Promoters
  & Shops:

Alligator Records
Beverly Records
Bloodshot Records
Dave's Records
Delmark Records
Drag City
Dusty Groove
Flameshovel Records
Groove Distribution
He Who Corrupts
Jam Productions
Jazz Record Mart
Kranky Records
Laurie's Planet of Sound
Minty Fresh
Numero Group
mP Shows
Permanent Records
Reckless Records
Smog Veil Records
Southport & Northport Records
Thick Records
Thrill Jockey Records Touch & Go/Quarterstick Records
Victory Records

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