Review: A State of Grace

I preface this by saying that the Buckleys are a big deal in my family. My mother, a self-described “original” Jeff Buckley fan, has instilled many values in me, and from an early age this included an appreciation of Jeff, Nick Cave, and any angsty music. “Hallelujah” is to be sung by Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley or possibly Rufus Wainwright – simple as that. ‘Don’t mess with perfection’ is the message there. Perfectly acceptable behaviour in my family was for my cousin, only 16 or 17 at the time, to be driven from Lismore to Brisbane with a fake ID to see Jeff’s concert. Not even a second thought. As for Tim Buckley, there are some in my family firmly in Tim’s camp, with one uncle going as far to describe Jeff as a “pretender”, which is blasphemy in mum’s eyes. Long and the short of it is that Buckley love runs deep, and I was both nervous and excited to see whether or not A State of Grace would deliver.

A State of Grace at the Canberra Theatre on 30 September was an eclectic celebration of the genius of Tim and Jeff Buckley, and an insight into the lives of both father and son. Overseen by Gary Lucas, a collaborator of Jeff’s on his 1994 album Grace and successful musician in his own right, the show delves into the extensive catalogues of both Tim and Jeff, showcasing both the diversity of the pair and the striking similarities. Lucas tells stories of Tim and Jeff, from the perspectives of both peer and fan, but leans toward discussing his own career and self-publicity, which was a disappointment considering his close relationship with Jeff. Performing the music of the Buckleys were Martha Wainwright (Canada), Camille O’Sullivan (Ireland), Casper Clausen (Denmark), Cold Specks (Canada), Steve Kilbey (Australia), Willy Mason (USA), and Gods and Monsters (USA). All brought a distinctly different sound and interpretation ‒ a testament to the broad church of Buckley music.

O’Sullivan stood out with her renditions of both Tim and Jeff songs. Her performance of “Lilac Wine” was outstanding, and props must be given for digging deep into Jeff’s catalogue, beyond the blinding brilliance of Grace, to perform a high energy, impassioned version of “Cruel”. Despite some apparent issues of sound and mixing that plagued the entire show, O’Sullivan did it right. Buckley songs aren’t half-arsed, there is no room for shakiness or uncertainty. Uncertain would be the last word to describe O’Sullivan’s performance, from Tim’s “Sefronia” to Jeff’s “Lilac Wine”, her powerful renditions stole the show.

My own bias took over when Martha Wainwright, daughter of esteemed singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle, rose to sing Jeff’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”, one of my all time favourite songs. True to form, Wainwright was full of passion and emotion, but it just wasn’t right. Her more upbeat, jazzy interpretation took away from the absolute heartbreak of the song, and the genius of the lyrics. I, however, was clearly in the minority with this purist thinking, as her final notes were met with a thunderous applause from the audience.

Can anyone ever be the Buckleys? No, but not one of the acts tried to be, and that was the success of A State of Grace. There were a few hiccups along the way, with some performances missing the mark and the show seeming to be more successful in its performances of Tim’s songs, but overall, the show was highly enjoyable and very well received. Purist views pertaining to the performance of “Hallelujah” and “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” aside (please just don’t even try), the tribute was as diverse as they come, and was a brilliant celebration of the tragically short lives of two supremely gifted individuals.