Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Tim Buckley - Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 (Bizarre/Straight-Rhino, 1990)
I remember scoring this item at Record Swap's old campus town location on Green Street in Champaign right at the beginning of my senior year at the University of Illinois, which must have been in late August or early September of 1994. My previous academic year had been spent overseas at the University of York in England, and it was there that I had become a fan of the late great Tim Buckley. The British and Europeans often have better taste in American music than most Americans, and even though at that age I considered myself quite knowledgeable about artists from the 1960s, I hadn't even heard of this singer-guitarist until I lived abroad. One day at York Uni, my friend Guy from Doncaster offhandedly inquired if I was familiar with Buckley's work during an occasion when we had broken out the Rizlas to roll up a place to unwind, so to speak. At the time, I wasn't, and neither was he. Nevertheless, I respected my friend's taste and figured that this must be a musician worth checking out if his curiosity had been piqued. Sometime afterward, I came across a CD copy of the magnificent Happy/Sad on sale at the local HMV in the city centre. It was arguably the best 10 quid that I spent during that year, and I've been a huge Tim Buckley fan ever since.
At the time of purchase, Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 had already been out for a few years, and most of the musician's fans were still buzzing over the more recently-released Live at the Troubadour 1969. However, in addition to Happy/Sad, the only other Buckley album I owned at the time was Goodbye and Hello, so familiarity with the songs was one of the biggest motivating factors in choosing this live album over the other (which focuses more on material from the at-the-time-unheard Lorca and Blue Afternoon.) The fact that Dream Letter was a used two-CD affair at a lower price probably influenced my decision-making process as well. In the end, it was a sound investment (no pun intended, really) as these discs were in constant rotation in my CD changer (remember those things?) throughout that school year. Several of the songs ended up on mix tapes for various female interests I had back then, but none of these tracks seemed to have the romantic impact for which I had hoped. Oh well. Blame the girls, not the music.
Recorded at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on July 10, 1968 during Buckley's second (?) tour of the UK, Dream Letter captures the performance in its glorious entirety. If there is only a single concert from the 1960s that I could attended by going back in time, this just might be the one. In addition to backing from the redoubtable duo of lead guitarist Lee Underwood and vibraphonist David Friedman, Buckley is supported by bassist extraordinaire Danny Thompson (of Pentangle in addition to many other musical endeavors), who sounds as if he had been playing with the other musicians for years. As Underwood points out in the booklet notes, the key ingredient to the potency of these performances results from the singer's insistence on improvisation and commitment to playing new material. The acoustic renditions of tracks that had originally appeared as folk rock numbers on Goodbye and Hello - "Phantasmagoria in Two," "Morning Glory," "Pleasant Street" (a superb critique of American suburbia that is nicely paired with an interpretation of "You Keep Me Hanging On"), "Hallucinations," and "Once I Was" - are simply exquisite. However, one can sense that Buckley had already moved on from these compositions what with the inclusion of several songs that would ultimately appear on Happy/Sad, which was in the can but not yet released at the time of this concert. "Buzzin' Fly," "Dream Letter" (the first half of a medley that also includes "Happy Time," which was later rerecorded for Blue Afternoon), and "Love from Room 109" sound comparable to their counterparts on Happy/Sad, but "Strange Feelin'" proves to be the most interesting due to the notable differences between it and the final studio product. An outstanding cover of "Dolphins" acknowledges the influence of Fred Neil, while the trio of the next three tracks convincingly demonstrates Buckley's ability to extemporize with the best of them. The uplifting "I've Been Out Walking" is balanced by the somber tone of "The Earth Is Broken." If you listen hard enough, you might be able to hear the roots of the epic "Gypsy Woman" in the melody of "Who Do You Love" (not the Bo Diddley song), which also quotes the lyrics of "Green Rocky Road" and "Run, Shaker Life" before its unanticipated conclusion. Buckley's reaction - "Uh, OK." - to the audience's premature applause is priceless. Another composition unique to this album is "Carnival Song," which, in spite of having the same title, is different than the "Carnival Song" on Goodbye and Hello. Both "Hi Lily, Hi Lo" (a cover of the somewhat overly precious Kaper-Deutsch tune from the 1953 movie Lili) and "Troubadour" (which in many ways can be considered Buckely's signature piece) were items that the singer had previously recorded in the studio but remained unissued at the time. Yet one more imaginative medley, "Wayfaring Stranger/You Got Me Runnin'," provides the listener with another opportunity to experience transcendent live versions of material that unfortunately never made it onto any of his studio LPs. In my opinion, that old folk warhorse never sounded better.
**As an added bonus, I've included a scan of "..And God Bless Tim Buckley Too," an article by Jerry Hopkins that originally appeared in the December 1968 issue of the long-defunct Eye magazine. It's a brief but interesting read in which the singer is described as an "almost-star" and an Elektra Records executive is actually quoted as saying, "People like Timmie (sic) should be supported without any conscious concern of making a return on the investment." Can you imagine a corporate suit from the music industry making such a statement in today's world? Didn't think so.
2. Buzzin' Fly
3. Phantasmagoria in Two
4. Morning Glory
6. I've Been Out Walking
7. The Earth Is Broken
8. Who Do You Love
9. Pleasant Street/You Keep Me Hanging On
1. Love from Room 109/Strange Feelin'
2. Carnival Song/Hi Lily, Hi Lo
5. Dream Letter/Happy Time
6. Wayfaring Stranger/You Got Me Runnin'
7. Once I Was