Kevin McGrath reviews a performance by jazz vocalist Barb Jungr and finds her an exceptional live performer and consummate professional.
Since recording Every Grain of Sand, an award-winning collection of Bob Dylan songs, back in 2002, jazz vocalist Barb Jungr, (she is occasionally labelled an alt. cabaret singer or a political chanteuse) has returned, time and again, to the Dylan Songbook for both inspiration and consolation. Such is her mastery of the Nobel Prize winner’s material, that the New York Times felt compelled to describe her latest re-imagining, Hard Rain (2014), as a work whose ‘ferocity and truthfulness demolishes every cover version you’ve ever heard’. The insight, emotional honesty and evangelical zealousness that Jungr brings to her interpretation of a writer whom she regards as the American Shakespeare is evident right from the moment that the Rochdale born singer takes to the stage of Cardiff’s intimate Acapela Studios (recently named the capital’s best independent music venue) and launches into a tempestuous version of Dylan’s Oscar-winning number “Things Have Changed”. Having livened up a rather anodyne crowd, there’s an immediate change of pace with a sultry reading of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and an intricate medley of “If Not for You”, “Born in Time” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”.
Barb Jungr, as you might expect of an artist who’s played every cool joint from London’s Ronnie Scott’s to Manhattan’s internationally renowned Jazz cabaret venue the Metropolitan Room, is a consummate professional. When her take of “Ring Them Bells” veers off track, she stops the song and slips seamlessly into a humorous anecdote about an embarrassing hospital visit during a heatwave in New York. Suffice to say, the legendary folk singer Odetta wasn’t best pleased that Jungr had turned up without phoning ahead! More often, however, Jungr’s between-songs patter is a means of illuminating the source material, serving to enrich the understanding of each concertgoer. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, introduced as one of Dylan’s ‘mean love songs’, is prefaced by an audacious attempt to psychoanalyse Joan Baez’s ‘churlish mood’ throughout D.A. Pennebaker’s classic documentary, Don’t Look Back. After a short discourse on the balance of power in the Dylan/Baez romance, Jungr comes down on the side of Baez, seeing her as the wronged party in the affair and having to endure a very public humiliation to boot.
Barb Jungr is accompanied for the evening by pianist Jenny Carr, a classically trained musician with experience of working with a variety of appealing pop acts from Billy Ocean to Imelda May. Crucially, Carr was also part of the original Every Grain of Sand tour and has played on several Jungr records, most recently 2012′s Stockport to Memphis. Consequently, there is an easy-going vibe on stage, with Carr happy to play “straight man” to the irrepressible Jungr. The first of two 45-minute sets comes to end with a dramatic retelling of “Shelter from the Storm”, a tune arranged by Grammy award-winning pianist Laurence Hobgood. Jungr is happy to clue the audience into the pair’s initial meeting, where Hobgood, upon hearing that there were a clunky ten verses to tackle, suggested cutting the song down to size. Jungr’s response to such a sacrilegious request is instructive – ‘No. It’s Dylan. Every verse must be sung and in the right order for the song to have its full import’. In an amusing sidebar, Jungr explains that she still had to win Carr’s approval for positioning the tune as the finale to set one, correctly decoding her astonished ‘really?’ as meaning ‘over my dead body’!
It’s back breaking work to single out individual highlights from such a uniformly significant set of songs, but an engagingly animated “Blind Willie McTell” and a gloriously impassioned translation of “Chimes of Freedom”, introduced by Jungr as a song worthy, in its own right, of having won the Nobel Prize for its composer would surely be on any discerning devotee’s short list. Then again, the poised, poignant delivery of “What Good Am I?” was magical enough to fetch a tear to the eye.
The second set closed with a truly remarkable presentation of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”. Although Dylan has long maintained that he wrote the song during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with each line representing a song that the singer felt he would never live to write, he had, in fact, performed the number at Carnegie Hall a month before the Cold War threatened to end in nuclear annihilation. Jungr spat out the lyric tonight with such a righteous rage, it was as if Armageddon had already happened and the audience at Acapela was holed up in a nuclear bunker, post-apocalypse, lamenting the dissolution of the human race. The encore, a crowd-pleasing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, again showcased Jungr’s perceptive phrasing and her singular talent for breathing new life and meaning into a venerable rock & roll standard. Tonight, its line ‘Mama, put my guns in the ground / I can’t shoot them anymore’, seemed to echo the courageous struggle of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students in their campaign to bring sanity to America’s gun laws.
Although Barb Jungr has well over a dozen albums to her name, including interpretations of the music of The Beatles, Nina Simone and Elvis Presley, it’s to the songs of Bob Dylan that she is consistently drawn. Tonight’s mesmerising concert confirmed Jungr as an exceptional live performer and a singer truly worthy of the role that she’s taken upon herself as Dylan’s earthly messenger.
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Kevin McGrath is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.