Apologies for the crass plug, but if you’ve seen the new issue of Uncut, you’ll have seen an amazing picture of Tim Buckley, playing solo to a 35-strong audience at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center in New York.
The year is 1967, and Buckley is somewhere between the relatively orthodox folk-rock of his debut, and the extraordinary, personal music that would fill “Goodbye And Hello”, and act as a jump-off for the potent explorations that would soon follow. It’s a pretty fascinating period, very short, and one that’s never really been revisited; up until now, the earliest Buckley live material that’s officially surfaced comes from his John Peel session in April 1968, a full year later.
Much respect, then, to Josh at Tompkins Square (one of the most consistently interesting labels of the past few years, in truth), who is putting out “Live At The Folklore Center, NYC – March 6, 1967”. It’s a remarkable recording, not least for its clarity: as pack leader of a generation of folklorists keen to capture traditional songs in the field before they died out, Young had some very decent recording equipment to hand in his club.
The result is this crisp, intimate and generous set, with Buckley tackling 16 songs. The material splits between songs from the debut (most notably a fervid “Aren’t You The Girl”) and stuff in development for “Goodbye & Hello”, most notably wonderful versions of two of his finest songs, “I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain” and “No Man Can Find The War”.
It’s unquestionably great music, but a fascinating insight into a songwriter’s development, too. As Buckley expands the parameters of his music (“I’m always trying to stretch myself, explore; I love to see change,” he told Young at the time), you can virtually detect the speed of his development. “Live At The Folklore Center” is blessed with half a dozen songs that have never surfaced anywhere else, in any form (seven that never saw studio versions, if you add “Troubador”). They’re all mostly excellent, but you sense that, by the time, Buckley arrived at the “Goodbye & Hello” sessions, his ideas had already superseded this batch.
“Just Please Leave Me”, for instance, is quite brilliant, a giddy and impassioned piece that stands comparison with “Aren’t You The Girl”, but perhaps too frenzied and poppy for the more baked terrain Buckley was approaching. It’s harder, though, to account for why he ditched “What Do You Do (He Never Saw You)”, “Cripples Cry” and, especially, the plaintive, unravelling visions of “If The Rain Comes”.
One relative constant, though, is Buckley’s admiration for Fred Neil. Perhaps predictably, an elegaic version of “Dolphins” is here, and outstanding. But “Country Boy” takes as its springboard Neil’s song of the same name, before Buckley heads off into untethered, extemporised space. It feels like a night when one of the great singer-songwriters began his journey in earnest.