Betty Buckley kicked off Lincoln Center’s annual American Songbook concert series by putting a gentle emphasis on the evolution of the art, not its fabled past. Although she included a fair share of Broadway classics in the evening’s eclectic repertoire, the concert was more interesting for its inclusion of contemporary pop-folk tunes from artists including Lisa Loeb and current gay cult darling Rufus Wainwright.
The singer’s distinctive, reedy voice was in powerful form throughout the evening, and her restrained references to the terrible events of recent days struck just the right note — for the most part, she allowed the music to carry the message.
The evening first hit its stride with a staple in the singer’s repertoire, Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s wistful ballad “Come on Come On.” Buckley’s intense affection for the song is clear, and her interpretation of it has grown more powerful as she’s lived with its gently nostalgic lyrics.
A Texas native, Buckley has a nicely forthright approach to her folk and pop material, which included an understandably emotional reading of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” (with its haunting images of “sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground”) and Lisa Loeb’s sardonic country-rock love song “Falling in Love.”
Occasionally, the flavor of a song got a bit lost in pianist and musical director Kenny Werner’s jazzy arrangements: Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” sung uptempo, was barely recognizable. But there were some ingenious twists, such as a pairing of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Meditation” with a Brazilian-flavored arrangement of Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You.”
Wainwright’s “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” a comic ode to everything that’s bad for you, had a nifty Weill-ian flavor in Buckley’s rendition. Also represented on the program were young Broadway composers Jason Robert Brown (the concert’s comic title song of self-discovery and self-deception) and Ricky Ian Gordon, whose “Sycamore Trees” is among his more straightforward pop compositions.
The concert concluded with a stirring medley of “America the Beautiful” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” both celebratory and mournful, and sung with electrifying commitment. The evening’s encore, by contrast, was a touchingly restrained “Memory” that Buckley seemed to infuse with fresh emotional resonance due to the sad recent events.