Photo: Steve Ullathorne

Barb Jungr Transformed the Music of Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen for City of London

Two superb and dynamic Barb Jungr shows, both revisiting the work of three of her favourite artists, were among the highlights of this year’s City of London Festival.
Barb Jungr

Taking place at various venues around the financial centre of the capital, the City of London Festival (22nd June to 10th July) offers a diverse programme of events, encompassing walks and talks, classical concerts, comedy, and cabaret. Among the highlights of this year’s programme were two shows by Barb Jungr that proved characteristically dynamic, rich, and revelatory. In the company of her regular musicians, Simon Wallace (keyboard) and Davide Mantovani (double bass), with whom she performed a spectacular Valentine’s Day set four months ago, Jungr took to the stage of ClubTEN at Grange St. Paul’s Hotel for two evenings.

Both were nights of “tribute”, in a sense, but ones which went way beyond the cosy connotations of such a term. First up, Jungr presented a programme of Nina Simone-associated songs, drawing mostly on the album that she put out in 2008, Just Like A Woman (Hymn To Nina). Then, on Friday night, Jungr returned with Hard Rain, a set of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen material that takes its title from her highly acclaimed album of last year, which mixed up material by her two favourite songwriters.

Given that Simone recorded a number of Cohen and Dylan songs herself in the late ‘60s (several of which Jungr performed at the first show), the two concerts were wonderfully complementary experiences. Yet they were also rather distinct in tone. Where the Simone-dedicated set gave us love songs and character portraits, Hard Rain concentrated on what Jungr characterised as Cohen and Dylan’s “political or philosophical” material. “There’ll be no love songs here tonight. You can get plenty of those elsewhere,” she told the crowd on Friday.

It gradually became clear that the subterranean and superficially swanky ClubTEN won’t go down as one of Jungr’s favourite performance spaces. However, inconveniences such as a creaky stage and a weird seating set-up that positioned the audience around the venue’s dance-floor, leaving a lot of empty space, in no way diminished the power of the performances, which veered from the uproariously humorous to the bracingly, even shockingly intense. “There’s a certain catharsis to the songs that Nina Simone sang. And some of them are a little bit vicious,” Jungr noted approvingly. If anything, there could’ve been more of the vicious, incendiary side of Simone on display in this set (a “Mississippi Goddam” might have been especially potent, given recent events in the US) and Jungr’s decision to include very few Simone-written songs in the show was surprising.

Still, what she, Wallace and Mantovani did perform was tremendous, from the opening segue from “Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair” into “Break Down and Let It All Out” through an impassioned “The Times They Are A-Changin’” to a tender, gracious “Suzanne”. “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” implicated the whole room in its sentiments. “Lilac Wine” was hushed and hypnotic, a performance on the verge of trance, while “Feeling Good” found Jungr at her most exuberant, grooving away to Wallace’s keyboard: radiant, rejoicing.

Like Simone herself, Jungr and Wallace are often inventive in their arrangements of the songs, unafraid to toy with the rhythms of a piece in order to serve the words in a fresh and arresting manner. As such, Jungr is an artist who can make you experience a song you’ve heard a thousand times before in a completely new way. Part of that is down to her vocals, which can be delicate or declamatory, sensitive or strident, as a composition requires. But it’s also to do with the way in which she uses her whole body in performance, spurring an equally physical reaction in those listening.

A song in Jungr’s hands is a fully embodied experience, rooted in her spontaneous response to the images conjured by the lyrics. She ended “Suzanne”, for example, not with a final rendition of the chorus, but rather with the line about the mirror, which she delivered while miming the holding of a looking-glass up to the audience. There was no more ineffably Jungr moment than the one in which, kicking off her shoes, she dashed on to the dance-floor to encourage the crowd in a singalong of “To Love Somebody”. She closed the set with Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman”, in a version so camp and jaunty that it skirted parody and ended up frankly subversive, with Jungr finally slipping the song into the first-person and adding a brilliant feminist twist to conclude.

If the Simone set was great then Hard Rain was galvanising: the kind of soul-shaking show in which every single second is a highlight. From the moment Jungr, Wallace and Mantovani took to the stage and launched into a rollicking, rapid-fire “It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, it was clear that the trio meant business. “Whatever’s going on in the world at the moment, these songs are about that,” Jungr remarked, and so it proved. Cohen and Dylan have often been compared and contrasted as artists, of course. Jungr’s thoughtful approach to song selection and sequencing placed both artists dynamically in dialogue here, illustrating their differences and similarities as composers, from their recourse to surrealism and religious imagery, to their articulating of visions both affirmative and apocalyptic, sacred, and profane.

Loving their work as deeply as she does, Jungr doesn’t shy away from their most demanding compositions, either. While she ran the gamut of Dylan material, from a rapt, radiant “Chimes of Freedom” (1964) to a swaggering, gloriously insouciant “Things Have Changed” (2000), she generally stayed with Cohen’s ’80s/90s compositions. “First We Take Manhattan” was all jazzy, icy seduction. “Everybody Knows” was taken at a brisk cabaret clip. “The Future” was overwhelmingly powerful, Jungr inhabiting the song like a woman possessed. That track’s cynicism found its contrast in the reverence and hope of “The Land of Plenty”, a beautiful benediction, gloriously delivered. On the Dylan side, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Blind Willie McTell” were among the many memorable moments, the former harsh and percussive, the later bristling with attitude and a surprise harmonica blast.

The flamboyance of Jungr’s style doesn’t prevent quieter, more contained moments from resonating. “Masters of War” was transfigured into a taut, searing dispatch from some exhausted, hollowed-out soul, while “A Thousand Kisses Deep” felt spell-bindingly private and interior, Jungr barely moving a muscle as she delivered the exquisite lyrics with haunting intensity: “And sometimes when the night is slow/The wretched and the meek/We gather up our hearts and go/A thousand kisses deep.” Throughout, tension and seriousness was beautifully counterpointed by the wit and quirk of Jungr’s between-songs chat, including, here, a brilliant speculation on how dining with Dylan and Cohen might differ.

As some of these songs sadly attest, the times have not a-changed as positively, as one could dare to prophesy back in 1964. What has changed, of course, is that we’re no longer in a period in which artists of the intelligence and talent of Simone, Dylan, and Cohen are at the centre of culture. Jungr can transport us to that more engaged and vital time, but her shows, in their radical and creative approach, never once feel like nostalgia-fests: she’s much too present and vibrant an artist for that. There’s nothing didactic about her treatments of the songs, either, and they’re seldom linked directly to “current events”. Rather, the many resonances and supreme ambiguities of the material are at once illuminated and preserved in her reinterpretations. That’s part of what makes Jungr’s shows such invigorating and inclusive experiences, and such essential ones. The mirror’s held up to the audience. It’s a new dawn, a new day. We gather up our hearts and go.