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irish odyssey

"He watched the Late Late Show": The night an unknown Jeff Buckley played the Trinity Ball

The musician, who covered Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, died in 1997.

WHEN MUSICIAN JEFF Buckley arrived in Ireland in 1992, he was an unknown.

There to perform at the Trinity Ball, in a gig hastily arranged in the month prior, there was no sign of how short his life would be, or how great a legacy he would leave behind him.

The son of musician Tim Buckley, Jeff Buckley grew up without his father in his life. After his father’s death, however, his own music career was given a boost when he performed at a tribute to his dad in New York.

When Buckley arrived in Dublin, he had no management or record deal, and it would be another two years before Grace was released. Just five years later, Buckley would accidentally drown in Memphis.

Irish odyssey

Now a new documentary, Sin-é: Jeff Buckley’s Irish Odyssey, is set to be aired as part of RTÉ Radio One’s Doc on One series which will bring to life the story of Buckley’s first trip to Ireland.

Journalist Steve Cummins, the man behind the documentary, told he had long been intersted in the story of Buckley’s Trinity Ball performance.

The singer returned here to play three more times, one of which was in Whelan’s on the day his debut album Grace was launched.

The documentary features never-before-heard audio of his Trinity gig, which was filmed by Michael Murphy an A&R man for the label Imago, based in New York.

Buckley, who is best known for his cover of the late Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah, played a short five-song set, including covers of songs by Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. It was his first performance outside the US.

A Dubliner, Murphy had met Buckley at the beginning of his stint performing at Sin-é café in New York, Jeff having made his way there from LA.

Murphy recorded all of the Trinity Ball performance, something which Cummins didn’t know until the pair met. “He had been given a camcorder at the time by his record label,” he explained. “He showed me this footage of him – it was probably the first-ever footage of Jeff Buckley performing solo.”

jeffbuckleyVEVO / YouTube

“I started listening to Jeff Buckley maybe 20 years ago, in the pre-internet days,” said Cummins. “And so there was very little information you could glean straight away. I used to pick up little bits: [the EP] Live at the Sin-é – I know there must be an Irish connection there, and also through his surname.”

Buckley does have west Cork roots through his father, but they weren’t something he pursued for most of his life. But then, after his appearance at the tribute show to Tim Buckley, he began to look for a way back to New York.

He saw an ad for screenings for the Commitments which needed musicians. “So Jeff joined that and through that he met Glen Hansard,” explained Cummins, who interviewed Hansard for the documentary.

“Glen brought him to Sin-é and then about five months after that he was involved in a project called Gods and Monsters for a while, but then he returned to Sin-é.”

In April of 1992, Buckley appeared on Michael Murphy’s radar, and he went to see him perform at the Sin-é a number of times (Buckley ultimately did not end up being signed by Murphy’s bosses).

“The Trinity ball was coming up and Michael had the idea of seeing could he put Jeff on the bill,” said Cummins.

At this stage he was only solo for a month. He was totally unknown, he had no management, nothing.

jeffbuckleymusic / YouTube

At the time that Buckley’s star was ascending, Irish culture was having a particular moment in the US, thanks to music from U2 and Sinéad O’Connor and successful movie stars like Brenda Fricker and director Jim Sheridan.

“Ireland was big in popular culture in the US and so Jeff arrived into that scene in Sin-é where it was an anything goes vibe, and through that he met Mark Geary whose brother Karl Geary was one of the co-owners of Sin-é,” said Cummins. “That was another Irish friendship he had.”

His last gig before he tragically drowned was in the Irish-owned venue Arlene’s Grocery. His manager was in Dublin at the time with his other client Katell Keinig, who also appears in the documentary.

“All these things, some of them are coincidental, some of them had a bit of impact like Sin-é, when I pulled it together I saw an opportunity to tell Jeff Buckley’s story from an Irish perspective for the first time,” said Cummins.

Watching the Late Late Show

geraldthegorilla14 / YouTube

When Murphy brought Buckley over for the gig, the singer stayed at Murphy’s parents house in Deansgrange. “Michael collected him from the airport and brought him to Slane, Newgrange, brought him to see monastic ruins.”

Buckley was due to have dinner with industry people and Murphy that evening, but the singer decided he wasn’t interested in going.

“Jeff decided he wanted to sit in, so he decided to stay in with Michael’s parents and watch the Late Late show. [His Trinity Ball performance] was on after midnight,” said Cummins.

Murphy now lectures in IADT in Dun Laoghaire. In the documentary, his parents speak of their fond memories of meeting Jeff Buckley.

Meeting people who spent time with Buckley helped Cummins to get an even truer sense of who he was as a person.

“I liked him as a fan but there had been this picture painted of him of stuff I’d read of him being a dark or fragile soul,” said Cummins. “But the image I got was totally the opposite – he was very much funny, very much full of life, very generous.”

He was also very present, that kept on coming up, that people would say when he spoke to you it was like nobody else was in the room. The picture I got was of a really nice guy who perhaps got a little burnt out from touring and the pressures of having to come up with a follow on album.

Murphy told Cummins: “If you think his music was good, he was as good a guy as his music and as nice a guy as his music.”

EPSON MFP image Steve Cummins Steve Cummins

Watching the footage of Buckley’s performance “was like looking into a window into the past”, said Cummins.

While Murphy was happy to let some of the audio be used for the documentary, there are no plans to release the video publicly.

The documentary is a labour of love for Cummins, but it’s also a chance for him to reconnect with why he is such a fan of Buckley’s music.

“When I heard him for the first time 20 years ago, I had mainly been listening to all the Britpop stuff and Nirvana. When I heard him… it was like nothing I’d heard at that point and it opened me up to new music. I just love the way he sings  - not just his voice but the way he plays with notes and his phrasing and his guitar playing as well.”

I just love everytime I listen to his music I get something new out of it.

Sin-é: Jeff Buckley’s Irish Odyssey will be broadcast on RTÉ Radio One today at 2pm as part of the Documentary on One. It will be repeated at 7pm on Sunday 13 November.

Read: “A true visionary”: Tributes to Leonard Cohen, following legendary singer-songwriter’s death>

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