Second only to Kurt Cobain, a decade and a half later, Jeff Buckley stands as the most influential--and tragic--musician to impact the fertile music scene of the '90s.
The son of '60s folk singer Tim Buckley, Jeff released only one studio album, "Grace" (1994), after rising from tiny clubs and coffeehouses such as Sin-é in Manhattan's East Village. In June 1997, he died at age 30 in a still mysterious drowning in the Wolf River in Memphis. But his slippery, soulful voice and penetrating songs continue to touch legions of fans, and his legend looms ever larger.
Buckley made his first appearance in Chicago in February 1994 at Uncommon Ground, which was still primarily a coffee house just north of Metro at Grace and Clark streets. The restaurant had opened in 1991 and begun booking music shortly thereafter, eager to fill what owner Mike Cameron calls "a huge hole in ground-zero emerging artist venues." (The venue has since expanded twice in its original location, and opened a second in Edgewater.)
"As far as the music scene in the mid-'90s, with the whole 'MTV Unplugged' thing, everybody wanted to do these acoustic performances," Cameron recalls. "But Jeff actually really put his mark on us, with all of the attention put on his performance.
"He played two nights in the middle of the winter; he was touring solo, and he and his tour manager were driving around cross-country in what looked like an old cop car. Before he came back through all these cities with his band [in support of "Grace"], he wanted to do these coffee-house shows like what he had done at Sin-é, which I thought was pretty cool."
A hearty crowd of about 30 braved the brutal Chicago winter night.
"It was blizzarding out, and during his performance, all the streets were shut down. We were totally getting socked in, but that just made for even a more magical night. We had the fireplace going, and it was just him and his guitar. It was a pin-drop listening audience--mostly fellow musicians, people in the music industry and a couple of reporters who were just told, 'Hey, you have to come see this guy'--so he had a very attentive audience, and it was something else. I've never witnessed anything that intimate since, and I think anybody who was there was really taken back by how he just sucked everybody in."
Not long after Buckley's death, some of his fans approached Cameron about doing a tribute. "They just wanted to do a fan gathering, and we thought, 'Well, if you guys want to get together and reminisce about shows that you've seen, we'll play some music.' Being a business owner, you always like these things to be a little more organized, so the second year, we actually took it over because we were getting requests from people who wanted to perform. And we also decided we didn't want to do it on the date of his death, we wanted to make it a celebration, so I said, 'Let's do it on his birthday,' which is Nov. 17.
"The first year we did just one night, and I think I turned away a hundred times more people than were able to get in. In about the third year, we kind of fleshed out how we were going to do this, and we set up the format we have now: Come in, have dinner, move into the back room for an intimate show like as if Jeff were there, and we'll bring in musicians from around the world who want to fly in and play a couple of his tunes."
Now in its 12th year, the roster of performers who'll play Buckley's songs and a smattering of their own material bearing his influence includes artists from New York (Jann Klose, Mieka Pauley), San Francisco (Carey Head of the band Pollux), Toronto (Catherine Harrison) and of course Chicago (Todd Kessler, Rachele Eve, Michael Chorvat, Katherine Zwick, Lauren Frost and Alain de Courtenay; the club has a Web page with links to all of the artists' MySpace pages).
In previous years, performers have come from France, Italy, Denmark, Holland, Mexico, Great Britain and Australia. And because the spirit is right--proceeds benefit the Old Town School of Folk Music Scholarship Fund--the tribute has won the support of Buckley's family, and his mother, Mary Guibert, has even attended several of the concerts.
"It always amazes me every year how many people have it on their calendars and start calling us months in advance, like, 'When are you taking reservations again? We want to make sure we get in!'" Cameron says. "But we try to keep it pretty true to when Jeff played at Uncommon Ground: intimate and all about the music."
The 12th Annual Jeff Buckley Tribute Concert
8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 17 and 18
Uncommon Ground, 3800 N. Clark