Jeff Buckley | still from video

Confession time: I never actually listened to Jeff Buckley during his lifetime.

In my younger and more narrow-minded years, I had somewhat rigid ideas of what music was supposed to be — “rock” sounded like this, men sang like this — and those parameters unfortunately did not include intricate, atmospheric guitar arrangements and a guy at a microphone delivering a breathtaking, acrobatic falsetto. Some punk rock sorts whose approval my high school self desperately craved dismissed Buckley as “whiny” and that sealed the deal. I didn’t bother with Grace, and I didn’t think about Buckley all that much, even when a few of my classmates were heartbroken to hear of his passing towards the end of my senior year.

Flash forward to the summer of 2000, and an empty day that my friend Josh and I spent driving aimlessly around the Philadelphia suburbs. He had a raucous, cathartic guitar jam exploding out of his car speakers, with that very distinctive, trembling voice at the forefront.

“What is this?” I asked.

“It’s Jeff Buckley,” Josh replied as “Eternal Life” played. “The new live album, Mystery White Boy.”

“I didn’t know Jeff Buckley was this much of a rocker.”

“Jeff Buckley was a lot of things.”

That succinct, extremely apt phrase sent me down a never-too-late rabbit hole of Buckley’s work — the sweaty and scintillating Live in Chicago DVD, the emotional and sensual Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, all the way back to his masterpiece Grace — and after taking it all in, and then putting it on repeat, I realized that those seven words from my friend couldn’t have better captured his identity as an artist.

Jeff Buckley did not believe in boundaries or binaries. Through his work, he challenged conventional ideas of genre and of gender, of sound and vision, of the album as an artistic artifact versus a commercial product. He wrote singles that were beautifully poppy, yet incredibly complex; he growled and spat as much as he sang like an angel; he explored intensely personal themes in the same breath as deeply spiritual ones.

There is no one thing that Jeff Buckley “was,” and that’s exactly what makes him so fascinating as an artist. Those rigid ideas that teenage me had? Buckley’d be the first person to tell you they’re bullshit. He listened to what he wanted to hear, wrote songs that he wanted to sing, and in doing so inspired a generation and beyond to be earnest, to be complex, and to be unashamed about it. 25 years on, that’s the reason his work endures.

On Friday, August 23rd, Grace — the only album released during Jeff Buckley’s lifetime — turns 25 years old, and in honor of that milestone, The Key was thrilled to work with World Cafe Live on curating a lineup of some of Philly’s best voices and biggest Buckley fanatics to perform the album from front to back. Ahead of the concert, we asked the performers their thoughts on what makes Grace great, what about Buckley inspires them, and this is what they said.

“Discovering Jeff Buckley’s music is a unique treasure and pleasure to the ears.  With unfolding layers of lush harmony and virtuosic playing combined with emotional depth and soul, these songs warrant obsessive listening. I consider myself not only a fan, but a student of Jeff Buckley’s artistry. I know that when I dare put on one of his songs, I am in for a three-hour listening marathon. Jeff’s music simply feels like home. It is an honor to pay tribute to one of my grand influences.”

– Naeemah Maddox

“From the first time I heard Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah,’ it resonated as incredibly sacred and mystifying. Singing this takes me one step closer to understanding a fraction of that intangible spirit that he summoned with his voice and guitar.”

-Trevor Leonard, The End of America

Grace is beautiful yet tough, fused with elements of jazz, classical, grunge and truly just a little bit of everything. To me, Grace represents the notion that you don’t need to be focused on one type of music, you can do whatever you want. Music is freeing, and to stick to one genre is just limiting your own creativity. Buckley has certainly proved that with Grace.”

– Curtis Cooper

“There’s no song that can pull out the tortured, persistent romantic in me quite like Buckley’s ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over’ does, and has consistently with every listen since sophomore year of college when I was first introduced to the artist. It is an honor to bring his lyrics, arrangement and, most of all, raw emotion to life in the World Cafe Live stage.”

– Becca Graham aka Honeychile

“I’m not sure if I’ve ever come across an artist capable of paying great respect to writers of the past such as James Shelton, Leonard Cohen, and Benjamin Britten, while also firmly embedding them into the late 20th century’s popular culture. Jeff Buckley was like a zeitgeist unto himself. I’m privileged to have an opportunity to pay my own respects to what may be the greatest album I’ve ever heard and felt so deeply.  This isn’t a showcase of the technical and artistic prowess of Grace on stage, but a true celebration of one artist’s heart and soul, and I know my spirit will be soaring all night.”

– Matt Duke

“I remember the day I bought Grace on CD and listening to it on a rainy drive home. Jeff’s voice and guitar playing was mesmerizing. His sound inhabits an emotional realm I’d never experienced before, and could never be truly replicated.”

– Brendon Thomas, The End of America

“It’s truly a mystery of this world, how some of our brightest stars arrive, burn so hot, then fade so quick. Joplin, Hendrix, Buckley…the list goes on. My heart hurts thinking about what music we would been given had he lived longer, but so grateful for what we got.”

– James Downes, The End of America

The 25th Anniversary of Jeff Buckley’s Grace Presented by The Key comes to World Cafe Live on Friday, August 23rd. Tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.