Album Review: Betty Buckley – Story Songs

“Don’t give up
I know you can make it good”

The indefatigable Betty Buckley shows no sign of slowing down – recently appearing in the M Night Shyamalan film Split and releasing Story Songs, which I think is her 18th solo album. It’s a double album: the first disc, recorded live at the Samueli Theater at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California; the taped at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York. And across the two, she serves a sterling reminder of how sublime an art cabaret can be.

From a career that stretches over a number of decades, one of the real thrills of Story Songs is just how diverse the song selection is, dipping into a wide range of popular music (Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, even Radiohead) as well as musical theatre from classic (Rodgers and Hammerstein) to contemporary (a trio of Jason Robert Brown numbers). And the combination is entirely seductive from start to glorious finish.

The first half is probably the best, featuring an excellent quartet in Christian Jacob on piano, Oz Noy on guitars, Trey Henry on bass, and Ray Brinker on drums. And there really isn’t a duff number on here – Harris’ ‘Prayer in Open D’ and Kurt Weill’s ‘September Song’ are simply transcendent, The Baker’s Wife’s ‘Chanson’ by Stephen Schwartz and JRB’s ‘Another Life’ from The Bridges of Madison County are achingly moving, the gorgeous take on Peter Gabriel’s ‘Don’t Give Up’ makes you not even notice Kate Bush is missing.

Moving to Joe’s Pub, with Jacob on piano and Noy on guitars once again, plus Tony Marino on bass and Todd Isler on drums, the quality doesn’t dip it all, it just doesn’t quite thrill in the same way. Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on A Wire’ and Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ are both quietly impressive, it is on the closing track, Sondheim’s inimitable ‘I’m Still Here’, that she soars. But taken as a while, this is a deeply impressive record and musically essential.

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