Buckner captivates in solo gig
Cicero's, St. Louis, Mo., May 25
By Roy Kasten
ST. LOUIS - A young man and a Guild acoustic achieved the astonishing feat of captivating 100 people at Cicero's Saturday night.
Richard Buckner hails from California, but his voice has the natural growl of the Delta and the high quaver of Nashville. Although most the crowd came to hear local headliner Elizabeth Einstein, after only a few songs, Buckner had them in his hip pocket.
Buckner's audience has grown in the last year, thanks to Americana radio play of his 1995 release "Bloomed," as well as simple word of mouth.
In an age when young musicians not raised on country traditions approach the music with irony, cranked amplifiers and devil-may-care abandon, on this night Buckner let only his voice and words carry the burden of emotion and meaning. A risky proposition in a grungy bar with acoustics like a YMCA locker room.
But the risks paid off. Following the example of troubadours like Steve Young and Butch Hancock, Buckner flat-picked with a bluesy steadiness and intensity. His playing won't make anyone forget Merle Travis; still his sound was raw and expressive, as he alternated bass pulses, with light, assured treble patterns.
As a singer, Buckner worked for damaging and fierce effects, bending and biting notes, without oversinging. And his narratives peppered with disjunctive images, all found coherence in his muscular, searching delivery.
Still he was not afraid to show tenderness, the kind earned by peering into the grace and pain of relationships. "I'm so afraid of our years," he sang in one a capella number. These quiet moments of pure voice were perhaps the most beautiful performances.
In another song, Buckner wondered with a doomed faith, "I knew the moon would send you back."
And while nearly every song was autobiographical, and at times even confessional, his voice, wise and rusted beyond his 27 years, turned the personal into a drama, a drama in which the audience saw the reflection of their own sometimes sad, mistaken and even blessed actions.
Buckner played every song off of "Bloomed" plus a few unrecorded numbers, but surprisingly no covers. His demeanor was warm but intense, and his set unfolded like a compact, economical narrative. Judging from the rapt attention on the faces around me, one could sense that lives were change - and not just for one night.
Buckner's songs lingered in that crowded basement bar in a way that can't be measured by time.