Review: Betty Buckley’s ‘Dark Blue-Eyed Blues’ Has Hardly Any Blues at All

By Stephen Holden

The New York Times

May 29, 2015

Forget that Betty Buckley’s brilliant new show at Joe’s Pub, “Dark Blue-Eyed Blues,” has only a distant resemblance to a blues concert. Yes, Thursday’s opening night included the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard “Blues in the Night,” but that’s just one of many elements.

Ms. Buckley treated the song, which is often rendered as a midnight plunge into despair, as a fast-swinging backward look by a tough cookie who knows her way around. “I’ve been in some big towns an’ heard me some big talk” became the proud declaration of independence by a wised-up survivor.

Throughout the show, Ms. Buckley used her cutting upper register as a kind of primal squall abruptly interjected to lay bare emotional truths that are beyond words. These elemental cries erupted in artful streams of consciousness whose rapidly changing emotions also registered in facial expressions and body language that made each song an unpredictable journey.

Her amazing rendition of “I’m Still Here,” from “Follies,” began as a jolly swinger, then steadily intensified as the voice of a jovial storyteller gave way to the triumphal cries of a survivor from a lifetime of shipwrecks. It was followed by a version of “Both Sides Now” that focused on the inconclusive final verse that balances losses and gains. Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” conveyed a similarly sorrowful wisdom about the pursuit of personal freedom.

During a medley of Rodgers and Hart songs, Ms. Buckley wailed the words “nobody needs me” (from “Spring Is Here”) like a baby in desperate need of cuddling. That sound may not be pretty, but it is heart-rending in its naked honesty.

Ms. Buckley has the best band she has ever worked with. The guitarist, Oz Noy, supplied some stinging blues licks while elsewhere surrounding Ms. Buckley in watery atmospheres, with sound effects that gave the music a painterly dimension. The arrangements by Ms. Buckley’s pianist and musical director, Christian Jacob, allowed her enough room to develop her interpretations without interference. At the same time, they provided necessary structure. The group, which also included Todd Isler on drums and Tony Marino on bass, is a keeper.