If your familiarity with Betty Buckley only goes as far as M. Night Shyamalan’s recent Split, in which she played James McAvoy’s doomed psychiatrist. It’s high time you familiarized yourself with the stage and screen star’s musical genius.
Audiences lucky enough to catch Buckley’s stunning performances at Joe’s Pub last year were treated to an abbreviated version of the concert captured on her new double album, Story Songs, recorded at Joe’s and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.
While many live albums amount to little more than time-delayed souvenirs for concertgoers, Buckley has always been a master of the form. Evening at Carnegie Hall (1996) and Stars and the Moon (2001), recorded at London’s Donmar Warehouse are among the highlights of her catalog, capturing a sense of vital intimacy shared by only one of her studio albums, the richly atmospheric, T. Bone Burnett-produced Ghostlight (2014).
Story Songs opens with a rendition of “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” from South Pacific, that immediately demonstrates Buckley’s wizardry in song selection and recontextualization.
You realize you’re being carefully taught by a master interpreter as Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics—“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/Of people whose eyes are oddly made/And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade”—emit a disturbingly fresh chill when summoned forth in today’s political environment, with Buckley’s tragic, whispered delivery serving to salt their wound.
Further on in a set constructed with the narrative bones of a fine play, Buckley summons antidotal hope in her prayerlike version of Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up.” The late Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, and Kurt Weill’s “September Song” are also beautifully inhabited by Buckley here. While each summons nostalgia with its familiar opening chords, Buckley lifts them out of the past, into an urgent present tense.
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