Be grateful Betty Buckley spends a lot of time in her car.
Now that she resides in Texas, where lengthy car rides are almost a daily occurrence, her automobile seems to be the place where the Tony winner has the most time to listen to music, often belting out song after song, many of which found their way into her stunningly potent new concert evening, Story Songs #2.
Buckley debuted her latest musical offering this past weekend at Joe's Pub, the intimate cabaret space located within The Public Theater, the same room where her first round of Story Songs came to life last fall. In her latest collection, the award-winning artist is accompanied by musical director-arranger Christian Jacob on piano, Tony Marino on bass, Oz Noy on guitar, and Dan Rieser on drums.
These top-notch musicians were prominently featured throughout her new show; in fact, the quartet opened the evening with Oregon's “Ecotopia,” which Buckley said was among her most favorite euphoric works, one she would listen to years ago, often while driving through Central Park.
Buckley began the vocal portion of her set with the Steely Dan tune “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” and it was the perfect start for an evening that slyly commented on the unfortunate current state of politics. As she sang, “Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend / Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again / When the demon is at your door / In the morning it won't be there no more,” one realized that Story Songs #2 would be as much about beautiful music thrillingly performed as it would be about the array of emotions one has been experiencing ever since the results of last year's election were finalized.
Buckley, who revealed her newest show will thankfully be preserved on CD, then switched gears, delivering Lisa Loeb's “Falling in Love” with a tender ache. The singing actor is so present in her delivery it's as if she is living every character before your eyes. Just listen to the emotion she pours into the lyric, “The time between meeting and finally leaving is sometimes called falling in love.” That refrain is repeated several times, and each time she sings the lyric, Buckley somehow manages to make it exponentially more powerful.
A dreamy, almost meditative rendition of the Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin standard “Long Ago and Far Away” preceded one of the highlights of the night, Jason Robert Brown's “Hope,” which the Tony-winning composer wrote the morning after the presidential election. Brown's song is a startlingly honest depiction of the mix of emotions many felt that morning, and Buckley brought them all to full life, also inserting her own vision of a hopeful tomorrow as she sang, “So maybe I can substitute ’strength’/ Because I’m strong/ I’m strong enough/ I got through lots of things I didn’t think I could/ And so did you/ I know that’s true.”
Buckley's eclectic repertoire also featured three songs written by T Bone Burnett (“My Least Favorite Life,” “Every Little Thing,” and “Dope Island”), who produced her epic Ghostlight recording; another by Steely Dan, ”Don't Take Me Alive,” about a hostage taker, who considers her fate while negotiating with the police; and “Except Goodbye,” from Judith Shubow Steir’s new musical Only a Kingdom.
Another standout was Joni Mitchell's “Shades of Scarlet Conquering,” which the singer-songwriter penned four decades ago and which Buckley introduced by recalling many of the young, beautiful women she got to know when she first arrived in Hollywood, many of whom left the business after the unwanted advances of men in power. Buckley imbued the Mitchell standard with a haunting reality that was simply spellbinding. Just watching her face in the pauses between verses is a master class in wholeheartedly connecting with a lyric.
Buckley rocked the room with a thunderous take on Mary Chapin Carpenter's “I Feel Lucky,” and then she switched gears for a beautiful reading of Paul Simon's “Quiet,” again offering a sense of optimism in a world that sometimes seems to be spinning off its axis. It was almost a healing session in song, as Buckley's gentle tones caressed the Simon lyric, “I am heading for a time of quiet/ When my restlessness is past/ And I can lie down on my blanket/ And release my fists at last.”
Buckley then related another story of her own, an evening in the mid-’70s celebrating with John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Gilda Radner, who had all just been cast in NBC's new late-night series Saturday Night Live. A car ride home eventually left Buckley and a somewhat depressed Radner alone in the car. As Radner rested her head on Buckley's lap, she confessed her sadness was due to the fact that Bill Murray, a member of their comedy group, had not been cast in the series. The late Radner then asked Buckley to lift her mood through song. Buckley offered JD Souther's “Prisoner in Disguise,” which also served as a stunning finale for her evening of Story Songs #2.
The Broadway favorite offered a lilting version of Johnny Richards and Carolyn Leigh's “Young at Heart” as an encore. Her interpretation was filled with so much honest belief and joy, those of every age couldn't help but leave the show with a little extra spring in their step.
Buckley, it should be noted, remains one of the master storytellers of our time, performing each song as its own mini drama. In an evening that runs the gamut of emotions—from loss and anger to fear and heartache and ultimately hope and redemption—Buckley tears at the heart like few others can, offering a baker's dozen of stories that are not only entrancing, but wholly worth repeating.
Visit Betty Buckley's page in Playbill Universe for a list of her upcoming concert engagements.