Photo from Manifesto Records
In the age of the smartphone, if a musician was to test out new songs and ideas in front of a live audience, then, like clockwork, videos would be posted online for everyone to see and post comments. And even if the songs weren’t played live, there’s always the possibility of demos being leaked and downloaded, which has happened to dozens of musicians this century. But, back in 1968, the pre-internet world allowed for artists to take bigger risks in performances without fear of backlash from music bloggers.
That year, legendary folk singer-songwriter Tim Buckley travelled to Chicago with a new batch of musical ideas to work out. Over two nights, he gave two performances at the Electric Theatre Co., accompanied by an unknown bass player and frequent collaborator Carter “C.C.” Collins on congas and tambourine. And rather than promote his recent sophomore album, Goodbye and Hello, Buckley workshopped new original songs that would appear on his next folk release Happy Sad along with a few covers that would later be re-recorded for his eighth and more funk-based album Sefronia. In addition to songs that would find a place on studio albums, he also treated his Chicago audiences to improvised jams of traditional folk songs, popular songs and, most notably, an interpretation of a Johnny Cash classic with Buckley’s signature flair.
For more than 50 years, the skilled guitar playing and shamanic vocal improvisations of Buckley’s Chicago performances remained unreleased — that is, until now. On Friday, L.A.-based record label Manifesto Records, which is headed by the nephew of Buckley’s late manager, unearthed the concert recordings and offered his following the chance to assess a new period in the singer’s stylistic progression with the 14-song double LP Tim Buckley: Live at the Chicago Theatre Co. 1968. And despite many songs on it having already appeared on studio albums, this new release does tout a few exclusive tracks, which are also among the album’s most enthralling moments.
The first of the two standout exclusive recordings is a reworking of Fred Neil’s song “Roll On Rosie,” where Buckley flexes his poetic lyricism over upbeat congas, bass and guitar. Among the most striking declarations from Buckley’s smooth but gnarled voice is the line “Some men read their religion out of books/But all I gotta do is stare in your eyes.” All over this album, Buckley plays the bluesman, often singing about his woman and her love. This song is no different and, after the sparser, more developed opening tracks, his band lets loose and turns up the intensity to make the nine-minute “Improvisation on Roll On Rosie” a memorable addition to his canon. This is not to say that the first two songs are throwaways, though. The opening ballad “Sing A Song For You,” already in its final studio form save some switched syntax, perfectly sets the tone for songs to follow with inviting lyrics such as, “So please let me sing a song for you /One I’ve known so very long/Oh please can you find the time?” If it’s a song as good as “Roll On Rosie,” that won’t be a problem.
The other unique highlight from this live album is Buckley’s unexpected cover of Johnny Cash’s “Big River.” Whereas Cash’s original was taut and controlled, Buckley and his band’s cover is much looser and more than three times as long, sounding more like it comes from the English songbook than the American one. Despite having been written as country music, the song’s natural imagery is easily adaptable into Buckley’s wheelhouse. It’s interesting to note that, like his son Jeff would go on to do in the 1990s, Buckley covered songs outside of his own genre and interpreted them into his style, including other songs on this release such as The Jaynett’s “Sally Go ’Round the Roses” and a tune from the 1953 musical Lily, “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo.” “Sally Go ’Round the Roses” would later appear on Buckley’s Sefronia, but played in a funkier, less serious manner than the improvisation found here, which sounds as if it’s in the early stages of development.
Although Buckley’s Chicago performances are more than a half century old, the sound quality of these recordings is, for the most part, well done by Manifesto. As far as the live aspect of the album goes, the crowd behaves reverential and applauds after song medleys end. Buckley only once addresses the crowd following the blues song “Looks Like Rain” to say, “Short announcement…that was a Beethoven fanfare,” whether that’s actually true or he’s joking around. For the most part, Buckley’s singing and warm guitar playing dominate the mix — as they should — while the congas and bass briefly come into focus and return to their supporting roles. The only time the rhythm section takes center stage is during the outro to “Look Out Blues” into the beginning of the shell of a song that would later become the 12-minute conga odyssey, “Gypsy Woman,” on Happy Sad.
Throughout the album’s hour and a half runtime, the spotlight for the rhythm section is short, but showcases the strength of its playing while accompanying Buckley. But on several unaccompanied parts of this double LP, there’s noticeable static, despite Manifesto’s attempts to mitigate it. Staticky recordings detract from the pretty folksy guitar of “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” and the brooding atmosphere of “The Father Song.” In addition to static, several tracks such as “Dolphins” and “Happy Time” are sloppily structured — even by the standards of live workshopping — and the album would have benefitted in quality and length from their omission.
But, in remedy to all the technical faults and slapdash works-in-progress, Live at the Electric Theatre Co. 1968 ultimately pays off with an epic 16-minute version of the folk standard “Wayfaring Stranger.” Trust me when I say it’s not your grandfather’s Burl Ives vinyl. Buckley embodies the titular vagabond riding atop an endless road of raucous folk jazz, utilizing his voice-as-instrument singing that would come to fruition two years later on Starsailor. His intense voice bursts out its choruses, singing “I’m going there to see my brother/I’m going there no more to roam/I’m going there it’s just over Jordan/I’m going there to make my home.” After a short jam, the band goes into a conga and spoken word interlude where Buckley critiques the music industry, “It all started out with a beat, Lord/A very long time ago/And they told me at the front make it pretty/Cause that’s the way it’s gonna go,” and delivers other more abstract improvisations about the sun, moon, foxes, rabbits and “the beat.” The trio ultimately returns to the folk jazz frenzy in which they started and close the performance to energetic applause. Several of Buckley’s live albums include “Wayfaring Stranger,” but this performance might be the one with the most powerful playing and impassioned delivery. It ends the album on a strong note.
Live at the Electric Theatre Co. 1968 is a fascinating artifact that captures songs that would reappear throughout Buckley’s career. For close listeners, it’s fun to pick out which songs are fully realized and which ones are still being figured out. Never before heard covers such as “Improvisation on Roll On Rosie” and “Big River” make this release a must-listen for any diehard Buckley fan. And although it’s not as transcendent as the previous live album Dream Letter, Live at the Electric Theatre Co. 1968 adds another touchstone in Buckley’s creative output and allows us to experience how his earlier folk sound was morphing into what would be found on definitive albums such as Happy Sad, Starsailor and Sefronia. We’re just lucky someone had the foresight to record it for posterity.