In concert at the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room, Barb Jungr mixed Dylan songs, bespoke Brel translations, and performed original material in an exciting, surprising and dramatic show that anticipates her eagerly awaited new album.
The songs of Bob Dylan and Jacques Brel have had an extremely important place in Jungr’s repertoire, forming the basis for some of her most beloved albums, including 2000’s Chanson: The Space in Between (Linn, 2014) and 2002’s Every Grain of Sand (15th anniv. ed., Linn, 2017). It’s not too hard to see why: in the complex and demanding music of both artists at their best, Jungr has found perfect material for her own genre-defying artistry, which fuses jazz, cabaret and – whisper it – a bit of punk attitude into a thoroughly unique performance style. A radical, funny and wonderfully physical performer, Jungr runs the emotional gamut as an artist, and the work of Brel and Dylan, with its idiosyncratic qualities of tenderness and rage, and of course, its linguistic richness, provides her with exceptionally rewarding material to mine.
Now, fresh from the success of recent collaborations with American pianist/arrangers Laurence Hobgood (on Shelter from the Storm: Songs of Hope for Troubled Times (Linn, 2016) which, as the title suggests, featured some Dylan-penned tracks) and John McDaniel (on albums of Beatles and Sting songs), Jungr turns to Dylan and Brel again on Bob, Brel & Me, a venture that combines work by her two favourite songwriters with some of her own co-written compositions. The results will be released on an album in the autumn but prior to that Jungr is taking to the road with the material, with the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room on 9th May the second stop on the tour.
The intimate, freshly renovated Purcell Room is an ideal space for Jungr; it’s here that she delivered a brilliant Valentine’s Day concert in 2015. (“Barb Jungr: My Funny Valentine: Songs for the Wild At Heart, Purcell Room, London”, by Alex Ramon, PopMatters, 16 Feb 2015.) What made the new show particularly noteworthy was the accompanying full band: Rod Youngs on drums, Davide Mantovani on bass, and Jamie Safir and Jenny Carr gamely switching between piano and keyboard. It’s a rarity to see Jungr perform live with a percussionist and Young’s contributions gave a deep, funky sensuousness to the Dylan material in particular, with creative, supple arrangements (care of Safir and Carr) bringing “Mr.Tambourine Man”, “One Too Many Mornings”, and “Simple Twist of Fate” to fresh, dramatic life.
Robb Johnson’s smart and sophisticated new translations of Brel’s work, the result both of deep sensitivity to the language of the originals and of negotiations with the Brel estate, yielded their surprises, too. Think you know “Jacky” via Scott Walker’s Shuman/Blau-penned English version? Well, think again, as Jungr delivered a much spikier take, prefacing the song with some hilarious remarks about the translation process, which it would be a shame to spoil. The lesser known “The Cathedral” and the classic “To See A Friend Break Down and Cry” were also highlights, radiant moments that connected deeply with the audience. The original material stood up well beside the intensity of these songs, from the wry kiss-off “Rise and Shine” to “Sometimes”, a homage to tiger tamer Mabel Stark. “Incurable Romantic” found Jungr at her warmest, an embracing vocal complemented by glorious cascading piano work from Safir.
Jungr promised the audience a surprise towards the end of the show, and this came in the shape of an appearance by the LGBT+ choral group the Fourth Choir, who accompanied her on a charged and urgent version of Brel’s “Quand on n’a que l’amour”, pointedly translated here as ” If We Only Had Love”. The follow up, Dylan’s “This Wheel’s on Fire”, was even more impressive, the song shot into the stratosphere as a fierce, incantatory piece, Jungr using her full vocal range and the band giving an intense, passionate performance. The mood turned reflective for the beautiful closer “No One Else Could Ever Wear Your Shoes”, a tender benediction written by Jungr and Michael Parker (who passed away in 2017) and dedicated to “all those we’ve loved who’ve left this planet.”
Humane, challenging, funny and restorative, this energising evening found one of the great contemporary chansonnières at her finest.