Friends Perform Birthday Tribute To Late Jeff Buckley

Folk-rocker Beth Orton headlines show honoring singer/songwriter, who would have been 33.

NEW YORK — Beth Orton and a collection of singer/songwriter

friends of the late Jeff Buckley gathered in the East Village, his old

turf, Wednesday night on what would have been his 33rd birthday.

The object was to pay tribute to the singer, who drowned in the Mississippi

River in 1997, while working on an album in Memphis, Tenn. But not one

of the passionate Buckley's lyrics was sung, as the eclectic bunch of

artists — including British folk-rocker Orton — chose to spotlight

their own material.

Mary Guibert and late folk-rocker and cult favorite Tim Buckley were Jeff's

parents. Guibert said she gathered everyone "to celebrate the Jeff-ness

that still vibrates when we all get together." She added, "I'm gonna try

to keep my composure — that's my challenge."

Guibert arranged for singer/songwriter Orton to headline the show, held

at the Angel Orensanz Foundation Center for the Arts, a gutted church

that added an eerie feel to the evening.

"You could tell [Buckley] put his heart into his music," 23-year-old Tara

Casaceli said, while waiting in line with about 300 people to get into

the old building. Casaceli is a member of an e-mail list called the Jeff

Buckley Hotline.

Her friend John Thompson, 51, of Long Island, N.Y., added: "[Buckley's]

lyrics were profound — unique from what we have today on the radio."

Buckley was fondly recalled by Welsh/Breton chanteuse Katell Keineg, a

friend of Buckley, who closed her selection of spirited Celtic folk songs

with Led Zeppelin's 1969 ballad "Thank You."

Keineg related how she and Buckley, both major Zeppelin fans, sat laughing

at singer Robert Plant's lyrics to the song (since covered by many acts,

including Tori Amos and Duran Duran), such as, "Inspiration's what you

are to me/ Inspiration look see."

As she delivered the lines, "Happiness no more feel sad, happiness I'm

glad," Keineg burst out laughing at what she described as "stupid lyrics

that mean so much when you're desperately seeking meaning." But when she

continued with the lyric "Together we will go until we die," Keineg seemed

saddened.

The husky-voiced Orton — who mentioned early on that she never knew

Buckley but was honored to headline the evening — sang a sweet ode

to him by performing a cover of Ronnie Spector's "I Wish I Never Saw the

Sunshine."

"If there's ever a song about missing someone, it has to be this one,"

Orton said about the tune, which appeared on her critically acclaimed

1996 album Trailer Park. She opened with that album's simmering

"Touch Me With Your Love" (RealAudio

excerpt).

Wearing a red jumpsuit, black stockings and beige clogs, and sporting a

shag hairdo, Orton looked more glamorous than the comparatively plain

image on the Trailer Park album art. She sang wistfully: "And if

I never saw the sunshine baby, then maybe I wouldn't mind the rain."

Orton and guitarist Ted Barnes offered a selection of songs highlighted

by the hopeful "Pass in Time," from Orton's latest album, this year's

Central Reservation.

Cleveland singer/songwriter Sandy Bell, who spent years hanging with

Buckley in California, delivered a trio of plucky folk-pop numbers.

"He's got dollar bills and little pills and me/ I guess he'll learn to

live with two out of three," Bell sang in "Little Pills."

"It means a lot to me to celebrate Jeff's birthday today," Bell told the

crowd. "He changed my life. Musically, he was fearless. He taught me to

believe in what you do."

Backstage, Bell elaborated: "When I write songs, I call on [Buckley's]

spirit. If Jeff is around [in spirit], it just flows so much easier for

me."

Opening the show was new, moody rock band Black Beetle, headed by

singer/guitarist Joan Wasser with guitarist/singer Michael Tighe and

drummer Parker Kindred, both from Buckley's former backing band. Tighe

co-wrote "So Real" (RealAudio

excerpt) on Buckley's studio debut, Grace (1994).

During "The Pilot," Wasser added violin to the slow-building wall of noise

laid down by Black Beetle.

"I am the pilot holding on to all these lives and I've gone blind," Wasser

sang passionately, as she held her violin by her face. The words were

chilling, in the wake of the recent EgyptAir crash.

Standing near wreaths of flowers on the stage, Tighe told the crowd, "I

brought some presents for Jeff: Rembrandt toothpaste. It's kind of expensive,

but he used to pay extra to keep his teeth white. And a Smokey Robinson

and the Miracles CD, 'cause those guys understand what it is to be gentle."

Also on hand to sing and strum an acoustic guitar was Daniel Harnett, who

got Buckley his first gig at Sin-E, the nearby St. Mark's Place club where

Buckley recorded the 1993 collection Live at Sin-E. Unfamiliar to

most of the crowd, Harnett combined Dylan-esque wordplay with spacey

humor, not unlike '60s British folk artist Donovan.

"I embrace you still in the hands of that unknown," Harnett crooned. The

words sounded as though they were being addressed to Buckley.

A fan who came from far away to honor Buckley was 24-year-old Ava Maes,

from Brussels, Belgium. After arriving in town, she read about the tribute

show in the Village Voice.

Maes, who saw a Buckley gig at a music festival in Belgium shortly before

he died, said, "I liked his music, and he seemed to be always honest

onstage."