I ventured out into the cold last night to let the exquisite Richard Buckner warm my soul at Southgate House. CR wasn’t interested in seeing him and doesn’t really know his music, so I went by myself. It was a weird experience to sit on my own the entire night with only a bottle of beer for company, but it didn’t make the show any less magical. I once was lost but now am found.
This is the third time I’ve seen him perform live, and each time has been a unique, rewarding experience. The first time I saw him he was still signed to MCA and was touring for Since. I cajoled Gazbot into going to Canal Street Tavern with me—even though he knew nothing about Buckner at the time-- and he was not disappointed. Neither was I, especially when he wandered by before the show and I went up and chatted with him. Now I’ll be the first to admit that he looks a bit intimidating and scary. He has a somewhat haunted look about him much of the time, and photographs only serve to enhance that somber, ominous appearance, but as we chatted his face broke out into a wide, glorious grin that completely brightened his entire being. Richard Buckner may not smile too often, but when he does, it will light up the darkest night; melt the coldest heart.
He had a lot to smile about back then. His album was getting decent airplay; his shows were well attended; he was garnering heaps of critical acclaim and was happily married to wife Penny, who accompanied him on drums.
When I saw him a year or two later, Penny had disappeared--the marriage over--and Buckner was achingly alone and spookily menacing on the Canal Street stage. He opened a suitcase full of noise and proceeded to turn all his beautiful ballads into screeching walls of feedback, and remade his up-tempo, jangly songs into funeral dirges. It felt as though he was exorcizing ghosts, and perhaps he was. I admit that my head hurt upon leaving the club, partly because I wasn’t ready for the noise, and partly because I couldn’t fathom the change.
Last night was the first time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him with a full band, as opening act Six Parts Seven sat in with him during the first half of the show. Theirs is a languid, shimmery sound, replete with a rippling organ, plucky banjo, bright trumpet (and on one song, a tuba!!), and a bassist who strums the instrument as one would a guitar, which resonated the club with a deep, rich mellowness. While they were on stage I noticed Buckner—a bit heavier, hairier, and grayer,--setting up his musical wares over in the opposite corner of the club. He’s grown a big, bushy beard since the last time I saw him, a cross between Grizzly Adams and an uneasy Jesus. I went over and thanked him for continuing to put out such lovely, sublime work, and the grin he unfurled my way dazzled to such a degree that I was sure the Rapture was at hand. The clarion call of the trumpet on stage only heightened the surreal, holy incident, and I scuttled away, cowering like a devil from the shadow of grace.
Buckner is a true lonesome troubadour. He doesn’t interact with the audience at all once he is on stage. He seems to go into a trancelike state: nothing else exists outside of a resonating voice and a couple of guitars. His eyes burn with a forlorn intensity; sadness and rage an onion skin from the surface. His songs meld seamlessly, a trick he first employed on 2000’s The Hill, with an effects pedal echoing as he tunes and retunes his way around the fret board. Then his whisky-soaked, ragged voice rings out with such heartbreaking clarity that the audience is transfixed, unable to take their eyes from the stage, afraid to move, afraid to applaud, afraid to breathe, lest it break the spell. It is transcendent.
Let the evangelicals have Jesus. I’ve already willingly accepted Richard Buckner as my one true lord and savior. Amen.