BWW Review: Betty Buckley Brings Righteous Anger to Joe's Pub in Exceptional STORY SONGS #2
Betty Buckley's STORY SONGS #2, the artist's new show at Joe's Pub running through Sunday night, was initially supposed to have another, darker title. She won't divulge the original choice, but one can certainly imagine.
A lot has happened since her original STORY SONGS of last September, starting with the obvious in an election gone wrong fewer than two months later, and currently resting on an exhausting, disheartening Hollywood sexual assault and harassment scandal. Making a sequel to the original, which, as a mixtape of numbers rich to the core with vibrant tales, was one of 2016's best solo shows, it feels like a momentary return to some form of normalcy, musical comfort food in its purest form.
So, STORY SONGS #2, it is. And with a sequel comes a significantly more directional show and a reflective Buckley, full of righteous anger. A "rock 'n' roll chick at heart" and a former groupie, the importance of a narrative and of a great band are immediate.
Starting with Oregon's "Ecotopia," her backing quartet, led by music director and pianist/arranger Christian Jacob and otherwise comprised of Tony Marino (bass), Oz Noy (guitar), and Dan Rieser (drums), has the stage to themselves. Before she joins them and many times throughout the evening, the band is in control of that necessary narrative. The star frequently takes the backseat to flourishing, improvised solos, like Jacob's to begin "Except Goodbye" (from ONLY A KINGDOM), as well as Marino's at the start of the funky, ethereal "Dope Island" (T Bone Burnett).
When Buckley takes the stage with Steely Dan's "Any Major Dude Will Tell You," followed by the dreamy "Long Ago and Far Away" (Jerome Kern/Ira Gershwin), you're reminded of how good she is at what she does. Watching---not listening to---her sing, I had a flashback to the original STORY SONGS and how entranced I was by her handling of each number, using the mic and the acoustics the way they're meant to be used--- specifically, as an extension of the self. No singer is more aware and in control of their own voice as Betty Buckley. Without fail, she knows when and where to let it ride, when to pull back or lean in.
There's exceptionalism in all parts of STORY SONGS #2, though, beyond Buckley's presence and control, and beyond the band or the narrative. She gives the illusion that, even though she's glancing at music throughout the evening, these songs were not perfected by pouring over them for hours in rehearsal, but, instead, by belting them out while dancing in her living room, or singing them in the shower, or at parties with friends.
There are years of love poured into all of her song choices that comes simply from a genuine love of music and storytelling, in general. With the exception of maybe one too many T Bone Burnett numbers (though I do look forward to the eventual Burnett-centric show), her picks, as they were in the first iteration, are eclectic but still focused, as are the stories they tell. "My Least Favorite Life" from HBO's TRUE DETECTIVE makes an appearance alongside Mary Chapin Carpenter's "I Feel Lucky" and Joni Mitchell's "Shades of Scarlet Conquering." From Buckley's voice, particularly in the case of Paul Simon's "Quiet," the words feel improvised.
Most poignant of all, though, is a rendition of Jason Robert Brown's "Hope," a blue but poignant piece he composed immediately following the November election. Buckley removes us from the current bubble we're all inhabiting in the comfort of Joe's to draw attention to the "confusing and terrifying and frustrating times" we are currently living in before launching into the ballad's optimistic pessimism (or, is it pessimistic optimism?). Nothing rings truer than, "I sing of hope / And don't know how."
Buckley has stories of her own from a rich life, including limo rides with the newly-ordained original SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE cast, singing JD Souther's "Prisoner in Disguise" with Gilda Radner---morose from Bill Murray not getting cast, as well---resting her head in Buckley's lap. These are her stories to tell, though, and she seems much more contented to leave them for another day. It's a show about other people's stories, after all--- not just those who wrote the songs, but, more so, but all of our stories in the room and out on the streets, individually and collectively, as people living in confusing, terrifying, frustrating times.
Ashley Steves is BroadwayWorld's Cabaret Editor and an arts and entertainment writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @NoThisIsAshley.