"When he did meet me he was effusively full of praise for my playing, and he seemed to really know my work."
It was part of Gary Lucas's job as musical director for A State Of Grace: The Music Of Tim & Jeff Buckley to assemble the talent. Who could take on songs from this celebrated musical dynasty's catalogue and do them justice? "Once you get talking about Tim and Jeff there's all sorts of delightful ideas as it came to mind with people," Lucas shares. "I mean, you know, everybody from Tom Jones to Cher at one time got discussed, but, realistically — and it's not like we wouldn't welcome them if they were so inclined — you know how it is with everybody, there were a lot of factors at play." When Willy Mason, one of the show's cast members, is asked how he came to be involved in the project, he enlightens, "I was approached back in the Spring [our Autumn] as a potential vocalist and I was very honoured to get the call. [Gary] did come to a show of mine recently, when I was in New York, and that was when we met for the first time; I was performing with Steve Earle in Manhattan... that's when we started talking seriously about [A State Of Grace] and started getting excited about it."
"A lot of great albums came out in that summer [of '67] that changed the world, musically speaking."
When it came to divvying out the Buckley songs, Lucas says, "I also had a lot of good input from my collaborator Jeff Apter who you probably know as a brilliant writer on many music books. He recently had a book about the Bee Gees that's come out, right, called Tragedy that I can't wait to read because I'm a big Bee Gees fan." Although he's attended a party at one of Robin Gibb's apartments ("before he passed away"), Lucas never actually met Gibb who wasn't present at the party. "I loved [Bee Gees] from the minute I heard them in the summer of '67, which is a good point to start talking about Tim Buckley," he continues, "because that's also the summer of Tim's Goodbye And Hello album... and the summer of Sgt Pepper's..., Laura Nyro's first album; you know, a lot of great albums came out in that summer that changed the world, musically speaking."
While Tim released nine studio albums in his 28 years on this planet (he passed in 1975), his son Jeff managed only one before he tragically passed in 1997 (aged 30). Although the pair barely knew each other (Jeff claiming he only met his father once, when he was eight years old), the bloodline pumped strongly down a generation. It was actually while working on Hal Willner's 1991 concert tribute, Greetings From Tim Buckley, that Lucas first met Jeff. "I was summoned by the producer Hal Willner, who was my friend and said, 'I want you to be part of this thing and I really want you to work with Tim's son, Jeff'," Lucas recalls. "And I said, 'Well, I didn't know he had a son,' and he said, 'Well neither did we, but he's presented himself and wants to pay tribute to his father,' so I said, 'Sure, I'd love to meet him'. I have to give Hal a great deal of credit here that he had a feeling, and a vision, that we would click together. And maybe that Jeff also went over the list of musicians, I'd like to think, because when he did meet me he was effusively full of praise for my playing, and he seemed to really know my work. And that touched me a lot, because one wants to get positive feedback and, you know, I was just emerging at that point anyway. But he knew my history going back to this guy Captain Beefheart, one of Frank Zappa's associates."
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Lucas and Jeff Buckley were on similar musical pages and "both had a drive and a vision to try and update this classic rock sound into what was then 1991". "And I think we succeeded with Grace and Mojo Pin — those were the two best songs," Lucas opines. The pair wrote "a dozen, maybe 13 songs" together, some of which have never officially been released. "One of them we're going to do in the show," Lucas discloses.
Such releases often raise questions as to whether an artist ever intended these songs to be heard by the world, but Lucas was granted permission by the man himself so felt compelled to release Songs To No One 1991 - 1992. "Jeff told me — you know, left a lovely message about two years before he died — that it was his dream to go back and really record these songs properly. As it was, I have demo versions. And then we did a monumental live show in 1992, back in that same church that I performed with Jeff for the first time in the tribute to Tim Buckley, and after a two-hour, two-and-a-half-hour marathon set we got a standing ovation from the packed church... So I was touched to hear how supportive he felt about these songs of mine. And then, of course, when he did his first album for Columbia Records, Grace, the two songs that we had originally first written together, and demoed, became the first and the second song: Mojo Pin and Grace, the title track on that record, which we're doing in the show with the great Martha Wainwright singing."
"It's really opened up my ears to some sides of the Buckley's catalogue that I hadn't really been aware of."
On whether he's previously worked with any of A State Of Grace's other featured vocalists, Mason reveals, "The one singer that I've met is Martha Wainwright, we did a couple of shows together". Wainwright comes from another musical dynasty and Lucas points out that he first worked with her mother Kate McGarrigle "in a tribute to the great folk curator Harry Smith", which was "another one of these Willner tributes". "She was super-friendly," he remembers. Lucas's band Gods And Monsters are on board as backing players for A State Of Grace and the vocalist roll call is rounded out by Camille O'Sullivan, Casper Clausen (Efterklang), Cold Specks and our very own Steve Kilbey.
"The songs were picked in collaboration with Gary," Mason reveals. "He had a few in mind that he thought would particularly suit my voice." Mason was "happy about" the songs he was allocated. Can he be a little more specific? "Uh, I think I'll leave that for people to guess at for now."
Mason admits he was "just a young pup" when Jeff passed and tries to remember when he first became aware of the Buckleys. "I probably heard their names," he offers. "But when I first started gigging in New York city, one of the first places that I would play fairly often was Sin-é, and it was a different location but the [venue] name was so associated with Jeff's early performances there, and the album that he put out [Live At Sin-é], that once I started playing there I started getting curious about him." He's also looking forward to this project on a personal level. "It's great getting to work in this way in collaboration with all these great other musicians who all have different experiences with the music. It's really opened up my ears to some sides of the Buckley's catalogue that I hadn't really been aware of."