By Brian Scott Lipton
Throughout her decades as one of the world’s foremost cabaret artists, Betty Buckley has practically embodied the phrase “courage of her convictions.” It’s not only that she performs songs (or even theme shows) that are far from the norm for this art form, but Buckley imbues each selection with such belief in its need to be performed – and with such unbridled passion and such extraordinary musicality — that you are invariably swept along, no matter what your preconceptions might be.
That gift is used to supreme effect in “Story Songs #2,” her wondrous new show at Joe’s Pub – one that many fans might shy away if they saw the set list in advance. (The only two standards in the 15-song set are Kern & Gershwin’s “Long Ago and Far Away” and Richards and Leigh’s “Young at Heart.”) But even the truest acolyte of the Great American Songbook will become a true believer in the genius of these pop, country and folk tunes after 90 minutes. (The superb arrangements of musical director Christian Jacob, who is joined onstage by bassist Tony Marino, guitarist Oz Noy, and drummer Dan Rieser, also play a big part in the show’s success.)
Is there any song more evocative of young womanhood than Joni Mitchell’s little-known “Shades of Scarlett Conquering”? (And few vocalists can really interpret Mitchell’s lyrics as well as Buckley does). The haunting “My Least Favorite Life,” one of a trio of tunes by her longtime pal and fellow Texan T-Bone Burnett, will have you mesmerized, as will a rather Middle Eastern-inspired take on Paul Simon’s Zen-like “Quiet.” And I would love to be able to add her brilliant versions of Lisa Loeb’s magnificent, melancholy “Falling in Love” and Jason Robert Brown’s happy-sad “Hope” (written on the morning after Donald Trump’s election) to my everyday playlist.
Moreover, Buckley doesn’t always explain “why” these songs matter to her — and it almost doesn’t matter when she does. Her rocking versions of Steely Dan’s “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” and “Don’t Take Me Alive” would be great fun even without her amusing anecdote about how listening to the seminal rock group in the 1970s made her feel “cool” while she was filming the sitcom “Eight Is Enough.” And while her unexpected tale of comforting the late, great Gilda Radner in a limousine — who was upset that pal Bill Murray wasn’t also chosen for the first season of “Saturday Night Live” — adds some poignancy to her rendition of J.D. Souther’s “Prisoner in Disguise” (a big hit for Linda Rondstadt), it would be gorgeous under any circumstances.
Being in Buckley’s presence, whatever journey she chooses to take us on, is always a worthwhile experience. And with “Story Songs #2,” I suspect one’s feeling about being able to take this particular trip may well be summed up by the title of another of her selections: “I Feel Lucky.”
Betty Buckley- Story Songs #2 continues at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette Street) through October 15. Call 212-539-8778 or visit www.publictheater.org for tickets.