In the summer of 1993, at the age of twenty-six, Jeff Buckley embarked on his solo recording career with all the temperate modesty of Alexander the Great charging into Persia. Newly signed to Columbia, he gave two solo performances at New York’s cafe Sin-e in which the yowl of his voice and the clang of his guitar couldn’t drown out the roar of his raw ambition. Buckley seemed to believe that the entire history of twentieth-century popular music needed to course through his veins. Blues, R&B, folk rock, acid rock, classic rock and grunge were just the beginning. He injected a scorched-earth, Janis Joplin shriek into Billie Holiday’s signature lament, “Strange Fruit,” then followed it up with an eerie impersonation of Robert Plant’s caterwaul on Led Zeppelin’s “Night Flight.” He sang in French (Edith Piaf’s “Je N’en Connais Pas La Fin”) and ventured confidently into qawwali music via Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He covered Johnny Mathis once and Bob Dylan three times. And he mixed in his own emotive payloads: songs such as “Mojo Pin” and “Eternal Life,” which would surface later on his debut album, Grace.
Released in December ’93, Live at Sin-e was originally just a four-song EP, shrewdly marketing a hot new performer’s street cred. Now expanded into a two-and-a-half-hour, two-CD set (with a DVD), it could be seen as an attempt to cash in on Buckley’s tragic death in 1997, but it’s too fascinating to be shrugged off. Every nuance is audible: the buzz of the amplifier, the wobble of the lower E string, even the fade-in of the Tom Waits song when the show ends. Sometimes his ambitions get out of hand, as when he jokingly tosses off a qawwali moan over the riff from “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” “I’m a ridiculous person,” he admits. “And you’re lucky you’ve paid no money to see me.” It’s a rare, humble moment from one entranced by his own burgeoning mythology.