“the emotion of her delivery matching the resonance of the lyrics
It is often considered a brave choice to rework songs that, for most people, are etched into their memory by the original artist. This is probably most true of Bob Dylan, one of the most significant singer songwriters who, at eighty-one, is about to appear at the London Palladium. Barb Jungr is one of those brave souls who has tackled Dylan. That makes it sound like a challenge, but Jungr approaches the vast catalogue with a purer motive. It is twenty years since the release of her album ‘Every Grain of Sand: Barb Jungr sings Bob Dylan’. Since then, she has said that “my love for the work of Bob Dylan has simply magnified exponentially”. This love and respect rings loud and clear throughout her set at Crazy Coqs. If anything, she has more respect for the material than the writer himself. Iconic phrases thrown away by Dylan are picked up by Jungr and delivered to us with startling clarity, originality and passion.
After opening the evening with a swinging, jazzy, staccato ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, she slips into her role of raconteur. Witty, self-deprecating and unafraid to be ‘naughty’ she is a consummate cabaret performer as well as a fine singer. At one point (jokingly) berating her accompanist, musical director and co-arranger Jenny Carr for not telling her to “shut up and get on with the show”. ‘If Not for You’ follows – Dylan’s love song for his first wife; “written when he was happy” quips Jungr, “a very short period”.
Over the next hour Jungr mixes the well-known with the lesser known, the emotion of her delivery matching the resonance of the lyrics. Dylan’s genius, she points out, is that his songs – some of which were written decades ago – reflect the world we live in today. ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ is sixty years old but could have been written yesterday and Jungr delivers it with a soaring intensity; a mix of fury and affection – that has us on the edge of our seats.
Carr’s varied piano arrangements reflect the diverse moods of the numbers, complementing the personality and poignancy of Jungr’s singing. From the gospel tinged ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ to the bluesy ‘Mississippi’ and through to the gorgeous, almost whispered love songs, of which Dylan is the finest exponent. ‘I Want You’ is followed by the achingly delicate ‘Sara’.
As her hour on the stage is drawing to a close, Jungr knows we’re not going to let her get away without an encore. “I’m not going off and coming back on” she tells us before singing us out with the lilting ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’. Jungr is the perfect channel through which to experience the work of Dylan. Of course, in a couple of days you can catch the real deal at the Palladium. There are a few tickets left, so if you have a few hundred quid to spare you could gamble it on one of his famously unpredictable performances. Jungr’s show is far from being a gamble – it’s a sure-fire hit.
Critical opinion of a Dylan gig is famously divided. It has been said that ‘it is difficult to understand what he is doing on stage’, while he has been slated (justifiably or not is another debate) for rendering “the greatest lyrics ever written so that they are effectively unrecognisable”. This charge could never be laid on Barb Jungr, whose singing technique is flawless, passionate and respectful. A triumph.
“Jungr is a consummate and very emotional performer”
Leonard Cohen was once asked by Bob Dylan over lunch how long it took him to write ‘Hallelujah’. The songwriter said two years. He then asked Dylan how long it took him to write ‘I and I’, one of Cohen’s favourites of the American. Dylan replied – about fifteen minutes. Whether this is true or not it helped shape the long-standing debate over which of the two iconic songwriters has had more impact on the worlds of music and literature. Especially when Bob Dylan became the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many say it should have been Cohen. Whilst Dylan’s lyrics may appear more complex and thoughtful, the time that Cohen invested in his work betrays just how nuanced and poetic his writings were.
But while these two sides bicker, the rest of us can share, and enjoy, the fact that they both command the same respect, and both share the same bracing power and control over lyrics and melodies. And in life they both shared the same undimmed respect for each other.
This is NOT a review of the two great songsmiths, but it is important to acknowledge their place in the history of music and their sheer skill in mastering the craft of the ‘love song’, which can change the way you think and feel. Deep, truthful, and often self-deprecating. And it is with this trio of attributes that Barb Jungr leads us through a snapshot of their work in an hour-long revue, live at Crazy Coqs – simultaneously streamed as an equally ‘live’ experience.
Jungr’s self-deprecating style is writ large from the off. It’s a technique that only the truly talented can pull off. “I’ve actually forgotten what it is I do” she quips; “I did this last night and it was… it was alright… I’m aiming for better tonight. But trust me, I don’t know what I’m doing”. These throwaway lines that litter the show belie the virtuosity of Jungr’s vocal technique, passion, insight, and innovative reinterpretations of some of Cohen’s and Dylan’s songs. From the opening number; Dylan’s ‘Love Is Just a Four Letter Word’, we are aware of the beauty of her phrasing, and her ability to make the words her own. The familiar becomes unfamiliar which in turn makes the emotions behind the words and melodies more recognisable. Although I realise that probably doesn’t make much sense. Accompanied throughout the evening by the wonderful Jenny Carr on piano, the musical arrangements are subtle yet conspicuous. Again, that doesn’t make sense either – but the two of them onstage make perfect sense of the material.
A pair of Cohen’s songs follow: ‘So Long Marianne’ and ‘What Happened to the Heart?’. A lesser know Dylan track, ‘Isis’, is followed by ‘Forgetful Heart’, the song that gives the show its title, during which Jungr pulls out the harmonica – a moment Dylan would have been proud of. Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ is given a sassy, sarcastic, don’t-mess-with-me kind of treatment which is thrillingly refreshing. Jungr admits to being slightly nervous about including that song in the repertoire but explains that Carr persuaded her into it because it’s got that “Leo Sayer bit in it” – a lovely tongue in cheek reference to a past plagiarism lawsuit (you have to be a bit of an anorak to appreciate some of the humour).
‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ has the feel of Jacques Brel’s ‘Funeral Tango’, and we get another sense of the depth Jungr can dig into the original intent of the song. She exposes new meanings that we (and possibly the writers themselves) might not have known were there. She closes the show, without ceremony, with Cohen’s ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ – Cohen’s sparse guitar picking replaced by Carr’s haunting piano arpeggios.
It is often difficult to get the full impact of a live show when it is being streamed into your front room, but with Jungr, you get much more than a hint of the live experience. Which is quite a feat. Jungr is a consummate and very emotional performer; and if you can catch this streamed show on demand there’s no doubt that you will be inspired to keep your eyes peeled for news of future live shows. Cohen and Dylan knew how to write the perfect love song – Jungr certainly knows how to sing them.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Live at The Crazy Coqs until 19th June – the live streamed show will be available on demand for a short period. For Barb Jungr concert dates around the UK visit www.barbjungr.co.uk