Betty Buckley’s ‘Story Songs’

By Andrew Gans
May 19, 2019

When a great artist steps before a live audience, there’s something magical that happens that can’t quite be reproduced in the recording studio. That may be why my favorite Story Songs, which was recently released on the Palmetto Records label.

The first disc—recorded at the Samueli Theater at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California—features Christian Jacob on piano, Oz Noy on guitars, Trey Henry on bass, and Ray Brinker on drums. The second disc, taped at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York, spotlights Jacob on piano, Noy on guitars, Tony Marino on bass, and Todd Isler on drums.

Buckley, whose voice sounds particularly sweet in these two live concerts, kicks off her generous double album with an all-too poignant version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” and the recording offers many other life lessons. In fact, the life the Sunset Boulevard and Cats star has so fully lived both onstage and off is evident in her supremely moving takes on “September Song,” “Don’t Give Up,” and “Throw It Away.” And, “Chanson,” “Too Many Memories,” and “Bird on a Wire” simply throb with haunting emotion.

The new tunes, it should be noted, are as thrilling as the older ones. Each of the three Jason Robert Brown offerings—“Cassandra,” “All Things in Time,” and “Another Life”—is uniquely powerful, and Joe Iconis’ “Old Flame” may battle some of Buckley’s theatre arias to become her new signature. The song epitomizes Buckley’s particular interpretive genius. She becomes the character of the Iconis ballad—an older, off-balanced woman, who never overcame an ill-fated love affair—interweaving layers of comedy and pathos to bring this complicated woman to full and intricate life.

As I was listening to “Old Flame,” I was especially struck by the lyric “I’m not living in the past. It’s the past that lives in me”: It’s Buckley’s rich past coupled with her acting prowess that makes her interpretations definitive.

The star of the recent hit film Split also shares heartfelt memories of three fellow artists, the late Stephen Bruton, Howard DiSilva, and Elaine Stritch, before launching into her own stunning rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here.” Thankfully, Buckley is, indeed, still here, and as soul-stirring as ever.