The Upshot: A pair of must-own live albums from the late singer-songwriter that capture him at a performing peak in 1969 and backed by a powerhouse of a band equally at home with folk-rock excursions and fiery jazz jams.
BY FRED MILLS
In terms of mainstream popularity—awareness, even—late folk-rock troubadour Tim Buckley is certainly a minor figure; his son Jeff, who gained prominence during the mid ‘90s alternative rock explosion prior to his tragic drowning in 1997, is far better known. Yet among the singer-songwriters of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Buckley (who died of a drug overdose in 1975) has been so eminently served, archivally speaking, that the casual browser of the man’s discography could easily get the impression that Buckley was a major star. Though he released only nine studio albums in his lifetime, starting in 1990 with the phenomenal Dream Letter (Live In London 1968) 2CD set there have been no less than 12 titles containing live and unreleased material, rivalling even onetime labelmates The Doors’ similarly-targeted posthumous output (just to use a “major star” comparison), and nearly as many anthologies and repackagings.
Why the near-obsessive adoration of Buckley among fans? Two new live releases, Venice Mating Call and Greetings From West Hollywood, are instructive.
By way of context: Relatively early in the Buckley vault-combing game, in 1994, esteemed West Coast indie label Manifesto, which entered the Buckley picture via a reissue of Dream Letter, unveiled Live At The Troubadour 1969, a nicely appointed single-CD set that collected key performances from an early September ’69 Buckley residency at L.A.’s famed Troubadour nightclub, sourced from the archives of Buckley’s manager, Herb Cohen (Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, etc.), and overseen by reissue producer and legendary industry veteran Bill Inglot. Considered alongside the aforementioned live-in-London set, it was a revelation, palpable sonic evidence that, while Buckley’s studio albums were consistently good, the stage was truly where Buckley came alive, unleashing that high, soaring tenor like a gospel-blues diva reaching heavenward while his band—longtime guitarist/keyboardist Lee Underwood, drummer Art Tripp (from the Mothers of Invention), conga player Carter Collins, Julliard-schooled bassist John Balkin—steamed relentlessly behind him like a jazz ensemble in full improvisational flight.
Fast forward to the present. As the 2CD Venice Mating Call and 2LP Greetings From West Hollywood co-producer Pat Thomas’ detailed liner notes disclose, Manifesto has gone back to the Cohen archives well, issuing previously unreleased recordings from the Sept. 3 and 4 Troubadour shows after meticulously going through five sets from three days’ worth of performances, originally caught on 16-track tape by the Wally Heider Remote Truck. There’s only a two-song overlap between the compact disc and vinyl offerings (“Driftin’” and “I Had A Talk With My Woman”), so if you want all the material—“Nobody Walkin’” for example, is 8:25 on VMC but runs a monumental 12:32 on GFWH and is considerably different in feel—you need to pick up both. In addition to Thomas, Bill Inglot (who, as noted above, produced the original LATT 1969 album) and Dan Perloff co-produced, while Brian Kehew assumed mixing duties for the multi-tracks; in an email, Thomas explained that while they knew of the tapes’ Heider Truck provenance, there was no original live recording engineer listed on the tape reel boxes. By way of consumer note, the 2LP set doesn’t come with a download card, which to me is a notable omission—I want to be able to listen to records at the office and in my car in addition to at home—but both albums are on Spotify, so ultimately it’s a minor quibble.
Cue up the CD or drop the needle, and with the jaunty, strummy “Buzzin’ Fly” you’re instantly seated at a small table so close to the Troubadour stage you can almost reach out and strum Buckley’s 12-string acoustic, his vocal front and center in the mix, the band’s instruments perfectly splayed out behind him and to the sides and abetted by a hint of rear-of-room echo lending a crucial ambiance that at times can seem like an extra instrument. Such is the intimacy at times that the listener can seem transported from a comfortable den populated by beautiful L.A. hipsters (look! There’s Michelle Phillips at the bar!) to a cramped jazz club jammed with musical cognoscenti who dole out their musical approval sparingly, but earnestly.
Favorites on Venice Mating Call? The woozy “Strange Feelin’” is an early high point, Underwood leading the band with bluesy riffs and Buckley answering him in kind. The percussive, kinetic, exploratory “Lorca,” which comes late in the set, is unique as an 11-minute early version of a song that would go on to become the title track of Buckley’s 1970 LP. Lorca would be cut in the studio, in fact, just two weeks after the Troubadour residency—the run of shows featured a number of as-yet-unrecorded songs destined for Lorca and Blue Afternoon, albums released at different times but recorded simultaneously. But the phenomenal “(I Wanna) Testify” never made it onto album, perhaps because it wasn’t a genuine Buckley original—as the Thomas liners detail, it was an improvisation upon an old gospel song—which is a shame, because it’s a true late ‘60s West Coast-style jam that would fit neatly into a set by the Dead, Quicksilver, or the Airplane and seems perfect for the times. (At one point Underwood quotes, intentionally or not, the Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen’s signature riff from “3/5 Of A Mile In Ten Seconds.” Pretty cool at that.)
How about faves on Greetings From West Hollywood? (The album title of course, is a nod to Buckley’s ’72 album Greetings From L.A.. Speaking of having fun with titles, the song “Venice Mating Call” appears on GFWH but not on Venice Mating Call, go figure.) In downtempo mode there’s folk-blues ballad “I Had A Talk With My Woman,” Buckley singing generally in his lower register to give the tune an additional intimacy. Contrast that with the jazzy, uptempo “Nobody Walkin,” for which Underwood swaps his guitar for Fender Rhodes and the musicians all lock into a propulsive groove, Buckley letting loose with extemporaneous whoops and off-mic asides—that voice is also an “instrument” in the truest sense of the term, at times sounding like the singer is becoming unhinged and leaping into the audience. (In Thomas’ liner notes, Underwood makes it clear that these performances occurred long before Buckley gave in to heroin’s allure, and to his knowledge no one in the band had more than a few beers at the shows; there were two each evening.) The Buckley band pulls out all the stops on another lengthy number, 11-minute closing track “Gypsy Woman,” also a pulsing, improv West Coast jam, right down to the individual players’ solos. Underwood in particular seems inspired, peeling off rapid-fire licks from his fretboard, Buckley responding in kind with yips, moans, and wordless cries of carnal passion
As live recordings go, these two titles immediately join the ranks of the greats. The aforementioned Dream Letter (Live In London 1968) has long been the gold standard among Buckley live releases, of course. But although recorded only a year removed from the Troubadour tapes, it represents a completely different Buckley, who as an artist was constantly evolving and experimenting. I’d venture that had a live Buckley album been released in ’69 or ‘70 his career trajectory might have been completely different, for this was an era during which fans prized authenticity above all else, which of course is why live albums were gradually becoming de rigeur for any “serious” musical artist.
Ultimately, while Buckley is long gone, the wealth of Buckley material available in 2017 helps secure the man’s legacy for the ages. As a fan myself since the early ‘70s, I dearly love every single note, and my hat is off to everyone at Manifesto and everyone involved in this archival project. More, please.