The Jayhawks – ‘Tomorrow The Green Grass’

By the summer of ’95 and over a year into my MVC career I’d claimed the lofty title of assistant manager. Check me. The previous management team were big on country, and whilst Dwight Yoakam and Garth Brooks did little for me, and Shania Twain and Billy Ray Cyrus even less (nothing), there were other artists who the more alt or folk side of that road who grabbed my attention. Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Shelby Lynne I’d enjoy, but the album I fell for was Tomorrow The Green Grass by The Jayhawks.

From the first minute of the opening track Blue, the appeal of Tomorrow The Green Grass is all there. Glorious harmonies, stunning melodies and a mellow, rootsy guitar-based groove on top of reflective and introspective lyrics…

“Where have all my friends gone
They’ve all disappeared
Turned around maybe one day
You’re all that was there
Stood by on believing
Stood by on my own
Always thought I was someone
Turned out I was wrong”

The constant highlight is the perfect vocal harmony between Mark Olson and Gary Louris. I’d love singing along, alternating harmonies, partly because they sounded so gorgeous and also because the songs were so goddam good; downbeat but uplifting and perfectly produced with piano and strings accompanying the orchestra of guitars. The producer was a dude. George Drakoulias was an A&R man for Def Jam, discovering The Beastie Boys and L.L Cool J. He signed and produced The Black Crowes as well as Primal Scream, Tom Petty and a lengthy list as eclectic as they come.

The guitar solos are another standout, particularly on Miss Williams’ Guitar and the rousing closer Ten Little Kids; distorted and soulful but never overdone. But as is my way it was the more lyrically melancholy and heavy-hearted that grabbed me the most. Blue was great opener, but Two Hearts is the album’s emotional peak if only for the sad as hell ‘I’m lonely, I’m lonely, I’m lonely too.”

The album’s predecessor Hollywood Town Hall and its follow up Sound Of Lies come close to matching Tomorrow The Green Grass, the latter just missing the perfect harmonies following Olsen’s departure. Would I have ever heard The Jayhawks if I wasn’t working in a record shop? Almost certainly not. It almost (definitely) makes the hat-trick of redundancies worth it.

Jeff Buckley – live at the Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth

Like any music fan I have been to my fair share of gigs. Hundreds became thousands once I started putting them on for a living. Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, The Who, Elvis Costello, Santana, R.E.M, Booker T & The MGs, Paul Weller, The Specials, The Flaming Lips were good, great or utterly glorious, but one name stands head and shoulders above these as the best live performance I have ever witnessed: Jeff Buckley at The Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth on 5th March 1995.

The Mystery White Boy tour took Buckley around the world, with the Wedgwood Rooms being his last UK date. An MVC collective travelled up en masse having discovered Grace towards the end of ’94, tingling with anticipation. The album was clearly beyond brilliant, but could Jeff Buckley do it live? Now, if trying to sum up his album Grace using words alone is tough, attempting to chronicle this gig with the articulation it deserves is an impossibility. But, after twenty-five years there are many things I remember, so I’ll do my best.

The Wedgewood Rooms was busy but by no means full, and I was stood literally two metres from the front of the stage, so five metres from Jeff Buckley. That sounds a bit creepy, like I wanted to touch or smell him, but his presence was so mesmerising I was riveted to the spot. He looked as cool as fuck rocking a drenched white vest and I was most likely drooling. Again, not creepy. Starting with Dream Brother, the set was most of Grace and included a few covers including a full-throttle version of MC5’s Kick Out The Jams and ended with the most jaw-dropping version of Hallelujah.

Searching for a video of Jeff Buckley performing around March ’95, this performance and set list from Chicago is as near as I remember, all available on YouTube…

My over-riding memory of the set was its overwhelming intensity. On Grace, the exquisite Lilac Wine and Hallelujah are beautiful beyond words. Performed live the depth of emotion, helped by absolute silence other than Buckley’s vocals and guitar, was something I will never forget. Again, words can never be enough but that was the closest I’ve ever felt to a spiritual reaction. His band were stunningly good, being able to follow Buckley’s creative flow and as with the album, the musical contrasts were immense. Eternal Life matched Kick Out The Jams for opulent, mind-blowing ferocity.

When a brilliant album is played live you want the performance to do it justice. You don’t want to leave feeling like the band just couldn’t do it on stage. With Jeff Buckley that worry wasn’t just dispelled, it went way, way beyond my expectations. With his utterly tragic loss just two years later, I feel so unbelievably lucky and so blessed to have the privilege of seeing Jeff Buckley perform live. His beauty and aura shone as bright as his lustrous, prestigious talent.

Jeff Buckley – ‘Grace’

There are some albums where I can remember the exact time and place I found them, or they found me. Or someone introduces it, like James whilst smoking his full strength Malboro in the processing room at MVC Bournemouth. He found it, shouted about it and from my recollection it was an escalation of appreciation from most staff members over the next few months. In September ’94 Jeff Buckley’s Grace hit quite a few of us very, very hard.

I had heard of his dad, Tim, but had yet to discover his music so I was unaware of that part of the family’s legacy. Grace is an album where elaborate superlatives are nowhere near enough. The music contained within the ten tracks is of such extraordinary quality that simply describing what you hear will always fall short. Of far more importance is the music’s overwhelming effect on your emotions, your soul and your senses. Goosebump level is always a good indicator of a great album and Grace scores ridiculously high on never-ending skin tingles. So, apologies, I’m going to fall short.

There’s something about Jeff Buckley that feels so undeniably veracious and real, and about Grace that feels so unquestionably convincing. Every single second of Grace sounds like he has to make it count, there’s not a moment where the intensity drops or the music lacks anything other than total conviction. Opener Mojo Pin is almost a tease, suggesting Buckley’s genius before the title trace Grace confirms it with a last two minutes that just erupt. The range of his vocals within these ten tracks is sumptuous, but to call Buckley’s soaring multi-octave vocals angelic or ethereal would be just too simple, just too lazy. The depth of emotion is everything, and it’s everywhere.

The album’s covers are impeccable. Lilac Wine, Corpus Christi Carol and Hallelujah do more than highlight Buckley’s vocal prowess; he’s taken great songs and with stunning arrangements made them his own, and as far as musical contrasts go in successive songs, Corpus Christi Carol into Eternal Life just shows Buckley’s full range. Eternal Life is the nearest Grace gets to grunge, but for me this rides all over the genre. It’s intense, thunderous, and utterly beautiful. Finally, Dream Brother sums up the brilliance of Grace. It has everything; a dreamy and transcendental feel which just radiates the sort of excessive depth that you just want to sink into.

Grace is my favourite album since the 1970s. That’s over forty years of great artists and albums, and this one tops the lot. David Bowie once claimed Grace to be among his favourite albums ever made, calling it the one album he would take to a desert island. Jimmy Page called Grace close to being his favourite album of the decade and Bob Dylan named Buckley one of the greatest songwriters of the decade. Says it all.

Counting Crows – ‘August And Everything After’

By mid ’94 and with my MVC career a whopping few months old, many new artists and albums were being discovered. The two managers had a thing for country, which opened up a whole heap of new options for me, most of which I dismissed but already my ears were taking in sounds I’d previously pushed aside due to nothing but ignorance. That’s the good thing about shop play; you can’t turn it off just because you don’t like it. You have to listen to it, sometimes endlessly even if it was something you’d never usually consider. Unless it’s Robbie Williams or the Spice Girls. Or Toploader. Average albums would be come good albums and could become great albums. Sometimes it’s the best albums that just take time to win you over. My social life was good too, with new friends, a new flat and post-work drinks in the Hogshead, which was to become our very regular watering hole. My flat was three minutes up the road, which helped.

August and Everything After by Counting Crows was released late the previous year, and it became a very regular player at MVC. I’d heard the single Mr.Jones and dug its driving American alt-rock country jangle, with romantic imagery of the dreams of undiscovered musicians…

“Mr Jones and me
Stumbling through the Barrio
Yeah, we stare at the beautiful women
She’s perfect for you
Man, there’s got to be somebody for me
I wanna be Bob Dylan
Mr Jones wishes he was someone just a little more funky
When everybody love you
Oh son, that’s just about as funky as you can be.”

More than anything it was the strained, vulnerable and downright anguished vocals of Adam Duritz that got to me. Man, he sounded hurt. I loved it. Nothing sounds anything less than pained and a focused, uninterrupted listen would be a strain emotionally, but worth every agonising second. The production was flawless, courtesy of the legendary T Bone Burnett who despite the lyrical down regularly kept the tempo or musical mood upbeat. Mr Jones, Rain King and Murder Of One are romps compared to the starkness of Perfect Blue Buildings or the stunning Raining In Baltimore. But, as was my want it was the more downbeat that really grabbed me:

“I wanted the ocean to cover over me
I want to sink slowly without getting wet
Maybe someday, I won’t be so lonely
And I’ll walk on water every chance I get.”

– Time And Time Again

And the brutal simplicity of Sullivan Street. I’d sing it with as much emotion as I could, knowing it would make me sad.

“I’m almost drowning in her sea
She’s nearly crawling on her knees
It’s almost everything I need
I’m down on my knees
I’m down on my knees.”

Their ’96 follow-up Recovering The Satellites had a near-impossible job in matching its predecessor. It very nearly did, but for me the time, the place and the excitement of the discovery could not be matched. That summer, Blur released Parklife and Oasis Definitely Maybe. Both were selling bucketloads and epitomised the Britpop scene with an iconic, quintessentially English sound. Like the Mondays and Roses five years earlier I listened loads and liked lots, but couldn’t fully get on board with the hype. For a fella that was enjoying his job and a new lease of life, whose social life and friends were bringing such happiness, I still had a yearning for music that hit my emotions the hardest. Songs of heartache are such sweet joy.