That Voice: Betty Buckley


Betty Buckley, currently playing—at gale force—Joe’s Pub. Photo by Scogin Mayo.


We might add to Betty Buckley’s other titles—singer, actress, teacher (all extraordinaire)—that of explorer, for she is a tireless explorer of life’s meaning. Her new show at Joe’s Pub, continuing through Sunday, is called “Story Songs,” but, with one notable, very amusing exception—Joe Iconis’s “Old Flame,” from a musical in development—these are not so much stories about individuals as the story of all of our lives.

That story will most likely include fear for a loved one (Radiohead’s “High and Dry,” suggested by actress Martha Plimpton); prejudice, whether our own or others’ (“You Have to Be Carefully Taught,” “Cassandra”); romantic love (“The Way You Look Tonight”); and old age (“September Song”). As she is an intrepid explorer, Betty doesn’t flinch from such topics but rather plumbs the depths of them, taking us along for a remarkable ride, and at the end encouraging us with Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up.” Her versatile band—Tony Marino on bass, Oz Noy on guitar (especially affecting on Emmylou Harris’s song “Prayer in Open D”), and Ben Perowsky on drums—is led by pianist Christian Jacob, who also played his moody and elegant theme for the film Sully.

My husband and I saw the show last night, along with the critic John Simon—whom Betty credited with being an early champion of her work—and Rachel York, the actress who has played Little Edie to Betty’s Big Edie in acclaimed productions of Grey Gardens in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and, recently, Los Angeles. On a personal note, it’s always great to see Betty when she’s in New York (she lives in Texas on a ranch with horses and many rescue dogs and cats). I was lucky enough to take a master class with her a couple of years ago and so learned something of the study—both practical and spiritual—and work that goes into her performances.

And I love Joe’s Pub, such a glamorous yet warm venue, a very appropriate spot for Betty, who spoke of working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Public Theater (home of the club) in the 80s. Doubtless then, as now, audiences were blown away by That Voice, an instrument so powerful that Betty occasionally moves the mike far away from her face. She did this when singing at gale force “Don’t leave me high/Don’t leave me dry.”

I think that this artist/explorer will never leave us high and dry; we will always have the wonderful songs she has selectively taken and made her own—and ours.


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