Michael and Helen Cameron launched Uncommon Ground in 1991 as a tiny coffeehouse at Grace and Clark near Wrigley Field, eventually expanding it into a full-service restaurant and music venue. In 2007 they added a second location on Devon, which they recently closed to spend more time with family. In 2014 the original Uncommon Ground added Illinois’s first certified organic brewery, Greenstar.
The Wrigleyville coffeehouse earned a special place in rock history in February 1994, when it booked the Chicago debut of an unknown singer-songwriter named Jeff Buckley. After Buckley died in a drowning accident in May 1997, Uncommon Ground held a tribute night in his memory. What started as a way to honor a friend grew into an international phenomenon, and this month Uncommon Ground hosts its 25th Jeff Buckley Tribute. Proceeds benefit a youth scholarship fund at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
For this week’s Chicagoans of Note, Michael Cameron shares the story of the life-altering gig that started it all and describes the ways Buckley’s music continues to inspire people today.
As told to Jamie Ludwig
Uncommon Ground opened in 1991. My brother and I were both musicians, and my wife and I wanted to open a community gathering cultural center in that area. We knew from the beginning it would be a little coffee shop and cafe, and it would be casual, accessible, warm, and cozy.
We also wanted to support local artists and musicians. We had rotating gallery shows. Then I went to the Old Town School of Folk Music and said, “Hey, I know you have a lot of talented instructors. Let’s see if they’re interested in finding a nice little acoustic spot to perform.” And they were. So those were the first folks we booked, and we developed a reputation for that.
In 1994, Nick Miller from Jam Productions reached out to me. Sony and Columbia had contacted him and said, “Hey, we’re about to sign this young kid by the name of Jeff Buckley.” He’d gotten his start at this coffeehouse in the Village in New York City called Sin-é. For his first tour across the country, he wanted to play similar little cafes. I’d known Nick for a while, so when he asked if I’d help, I was like, “Yeah, sure.” He sent me Jeff’s four-song demo, Live at Sin-é, and I thought, “This guy’s incredible.”
Nobody in Chicago had ever heard of Jeff Buckley—he’d never played here before. Nick and I invited all our industry friends and other songwriters and friends to come and see the show—it was kind of a who’s who of the local music scene at the time. It was February, and during the performance, there was this giant snowstorm. The fireplace was going and the windows were all steamed up. We had candles everywhere and little twinkly lights. It was pretty magical, especially his performance—he played solo and you could hear a pin drop.
After the show, we hung out and had some wine. He came with his manager, and I don’t know why, but in Chicago they gave him a Crown Victoria. Of course it got stuck along Grace Street. So we got into a snowball fight trying to push the car out—we were laughing our butts off.
Months later my brother called and said, “Hey, are you sitting down? I just read the Chicago Tribune. You need to flip to the music section.” Greg Kot had written that Jeff Buckley at Uncommon Ground was the best concert of the year. The rest of the list were artists like Bob Dylan and Sinead O’Connor who played big venues and stadiums. It was a little surreal, and it definitely put us on the map musically.
I was very thankful to Greg for that recognition. Never in a million years would I expect something like that. And it did sort of change the dynamic.
I’d been booking all the music. I was helping artists with their live sound, and we actually recorded music back then, like samplers with a dozen local singer-songwriters who performed at our little place. Then all of a sudden, I’m getting phone calls from Sony, Aware, Geffen, insert-label-name-here saying, “We have a new artist who we think should play your coffee shop.” This was around the MTV Unplugged era as well, which fed into that idea of stripping down rock bands for a more acoustic setting.
The next time I saw Jeff perform was at the Green Mill. After that it was Metro, where they put out the Live at Cabaret Metro album, which was unbelievable. It was a joy to see his career explode so quickly. When he came through town, we’d always get together. I’d go see him perform, he’d introduce me to the band, and we’d go out drinking afterward.
Because of that solo show, we started getting calls from artists who played bigger places and wanted to play stripped-down acoustic sets. I was a huge fan of this UK artist, David Gray. He called me personally (this was before email and everything), and I thought someone was playing a joke on me. He was playing an afternoon show at Schubas, and he asked if he could come by and do an evening gig.
Train played Uncommon Ground because the head of Sony wanted to hear them once more before he decided whether to sign them. So Train got signed at Uncommon Ground—the guy from Sony jumped up and said, “I’m gonna buy everybody’s dinner tonight. We just made up our minds!” Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles set up a coffeehouse tour because she wanted to do what Jeff had done. I’m almost positive we were the one and only coffeehouse she ever played. There were like 40 middle-aged men sitting three feet away from her. Maybe it was a little too close? A few days later, I read that she’d canceled the tour.
[In 1997], my brother and I were thinking of opening a midsized rock club. Every month I was producing shows at a different rock club, to get a feel for what it would be like to own something of varying sizes. On the night we were informed that Jeff had been lost, I was producing a show at Schubas, and I was actually performing with my band. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was friends with Anastasia Davies, who booked Schubas at the time. She walked up onstage and gave me the news. They still hadn’t found him, but they didn’t expect him to survive.
I had to walk offstage for a few minutes to let it sink in. I told Helen, my wife, who started crying. We really loved Jeff. We loved his music. We loved him as a performer and also as a human being. When you get that kind of news, you think, “Oh my God, how did that happen?” I made an announcement onstage, and I could hear everybody in the audience gasp. They knew that history with us, and I’d turned so many people on to that first album.
Jeff Buckley Tribute
The 25th Jeff Buckley Tribute includes a three-course dinner and doubles as a fundraiser for the Old Town School of Folk Music. Artists including Stephen Kohler, Shady Ahmed, Todd Kessler, Umraan Syed, Jennifer Hall, Dan Krochmal, Joe Armstrong, Bird & Butterfly, Spells and Curses, Cooper Ladnier, and Leela Ladnier will each perform two songs from Buckley’s catalog. Wed 11/16 and Thu 11/17, 6:30 till 9 PM, Uncommon Ground, 3800 N. Clark, both nights sold out, all ages
The very first Jeff Buckley Tribute was a listening party. One of my regular customers suggested we do a memorial, and 50 people showed up to pay their respects. At the end some musician friends asked, “What would you think of doing a tribute concert?” So year two, we started a tribute concert. I didn’t know if there’d be any interest, but it grew in popularity, and the more we did, the more popular they became. In the early years they were way too long with too many artists, but by year seven or eight I had it dialed in.
I pinch myself all the time because of the weird things I’ve experienced and the people I’ve met because of something I started long ago. In year two, I’d reached out to Mary Guibert, Jeff’s mom, and we became friends. A couple years later she wanted to show an early documentary about Jeff on a west-coast tour. She knew that I was born in Seattle, where it was screening at the Experience Music Project, and she asked if I wanted to come help her with the event. I was like, “That’ll be great. When I get done, I’ll go see my family.”
At the Experience Music Project, Mary had put me in charge of the green room, which is this giant bunker at the bottom of the theater. And she goes, “I have some special guests, but I’m not going to tell you who.” The elevator door opens, and Chris Cornell steps off with Susan Silver, who was his wife at the time. Literally a minute later, the elevator opens again and Brad Pitt walks out.
So for about 30 minutes Brad Pitt, Chris Cornell, and I are sitting around this coffee table sharing Jeff Buckley stories. They were there because Chris was a friend and Brad was a huge fan. And I was just helping Mary.
Then Brad Pitt says, “Hold on, I’m gonna go get my filmmaker and my cinematographer. We’re gonna do that again.” I ask, “We’re gonna do what again?” He says, “We’re gonna share all these stories again, but this time I wanna get it on film.” Because he was trying to do a different documentary. So somewhere there’s a half hour of this footage that I’ve never seen. Whenever I see Mary, I ask, “If you talk to Brad again, would you tell him I’d love to have a copy of that?” Because people don’t believe me.
In year ten, I decided to do one night at Uncommon Ground and a second night at Metro, because so many people were flying in for the performances. That year, there were more international performers than performers from the United States. People were coming from Germany, Denmark, France, Italy, the UK, and the Netherlands to pay tribute to Jeff. I couldn’t believe it. When I told Mary, she said, “Oh, I’ve got to come in.” So for 15 years she’s been flying in too. Her niece, Jeff’s cousin Alison [Raykovich], has come with her for the last eight or nine. They’re like family now—we call Mary our “rock ’n’ roll mama.”
One of the best parts about doing this is you get to be the great connector—you get to introduce all these amazing performers to each other. Over the years, some really great relationships have been formed. Artists will go on tours together or sit in with each other’s bands. There’s all this connectivity and camaraderie. It seems like everybody comes together for their love of Jeff Buckley and checks their egos at the door. It’s fantastic to watch it happen in real time.
[The production] is pretty loose. If you’re gonna perform at a Jeff Buckley tribute, you better have the chops, right? We want people to do what Jeff did and completely rearrange a song. My favorite thing is when the audience doesn’t even recognize it until the artist starts singing because they’ve made it their own. If you want to come in and impersonate Jeff, that’s OK, but that’s not really what this is about. It’s about the spirit of the music and making it yours and paying him tribute as a musician and performer in what you do.
We were going to do two nights at Metro for the 25th tribute show, but now we’re doing them at Uncommon Ground. We spoke to a lot of extremely famous performers that have been Jeff Buckley fans for a very long time, and we got a lot of early commitments when people were unsure about the pandemic, how venues would reopen, and whether or not they could book tours. But when things opened up, most of those acts started peeling off one by one. They’re touring as much as they possibly can, while they can.
I totally get that—they’ve gotta get out there and make money. So I went to Joe Shanahan at Metro, who I’ve been good friends with for 30 years. I wasn’t going to try to force something into that venue if most of the main artists had to back out. I also wanted to make sure that I stayed true to what the tributes were really all about. Keeping it intimate at Uncommon Ground was the right thing to do.
[Booking big-name artists] was always about people who’d been fans of Jeff and his music. Some of them never got to see him perform, but his music touched them and they wanted to be involved. A tribute on a larger scale will happen at a later time. This was inconvenient timing, but it’s a celebration of music that all of these artists had to turn me down because they were able to ramp up their music careers again after the past two and a half years. So I’ve asked one Chicago artist to come be my guest this year. And another artist, who was a Chicago artist 16, 17 years ago, is flying in from LA to perform. They’ve both played it before and wanted to get involved again.
I’ve always thought, “Let’s see if people still want to come.” But as soon as I put the tickets on sale, they sell out in like 15 minutes. There’ve been years where I’ve gotten hundreds of submissions from people who want to fly in on their own dime to pay tribute to Jeff. It just keeps on rolling.
I hope this story inspires people who aren’t familiar with Jeff to listen to the album Grace. Then they’ll get it. Dial that up and it’ll change your musical life. If you haven’t experienced it, you need to experience it. If you’ve experienced it and you want to see some very passionate musicians perform it, come to one of the tributes.
Around 300 performers have flown to Chicago to pay tribute to Jeff’s music. It’s like the Jeff Buckley pilgrimage to Grace Street. And when people come and walk around the side of the building and look at the street sign, they say, “You’re kidding—he played on Grace Street?”
The title is probably a coincidence. I never got to ask him about it personally, so I can only speculate. But it was crazy when the album came out. I was like, “You’ve gotta be kidding me!”
This week’s featured gig poster was created by Chicago artist and musician Erin Page.
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