The critic Chris Ingham has summed up the significance of the Beatles as follows: “[They] represent one of the few times in musical history when the most popular was also the best”. In our current cultural moment, the most popular is so very far from being the best that Ingham’s comment might make you wince with nostalgia. In their terrific new show, “Come Together”, however, Barb Jungr – one of Britain’s finest interpreters of popular song – and John McDaniel – the award-winning American composer and pianist – bring the past vibrantly into the present with a programme of innovatively re-arranged Beatles songs.
Jungr and McDaniel are new collaborators, and they’ve been performing this show over the past few months, including stints at the Edinburgh Festival and across the US, with more New York dates forthcoming in January. Londoners got their first chance to experience the show over four nights last week in the cosy confines of the St. James Studio. It was an occasion not to be missed.
The Beatles could hardly be described as a band that have lacked for tributes over the years, of course. But “Come Together” is about as far removed as can be imagined from the likes of a thrown-together jukebox show such as the hit West End musical Let It Be. Celebrated for her incisive and arresting treatments of the work of songwriters including Brel, Dylan, and Cohen, Jungr, whose shows at the Southbank Centre and City of London Festival have been among 2015’s cultural highlights in the capital, brings a similar approach to bear on The Beatles’ material, her vocals supplemented only by McDaniel’s supple piano-work and her own occasional harmonica-playing. McDaniel also provides harmonies throughout the set, and takes creditable leads on two White Album gems: “Mother Nature’s Son” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.
The stark and dynamic presentation afforded by the cabaret context allows every word in the songs to resonate afresh. With her terrific phrasing, protean delivery, and expressive physicality that turns every track into a fully embodied experience, Jungr digs so deeply into the songs that they emerge new-minted in pretty much every case, with lyrics that you’ve barely noticed before held up to the light and revealed as the very crux of a particular composition.
Given the incredible stylistic diversity of the Beatles’ output, the range of material covered in the show is impressive, the set encompassing both oft-performed classics and album obscurities. “Got to Get You into My Life” was an infectiously exuberant opener, less a straightforward love song (or drugs paean) in this account than a joyous hymn to openness and inclusivity. “Eleanor Rigby”, with haunting high harmonies and delicate piano from McDaniel, was taut, disconsolate and deeply affecting. “The Long and Winding Road” wound itself into stridency that was equal parts desperate and cathartic, Jungr briefly transforming herself into a figure blown by the gales as she reached “the wild and windy night” lyric. Augmented by harmonica and great foot-stamping, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” was equally exhilarating.
Opening the second half, “Hello Goodbye” was delivered as a pleasingly goofy duet. By contrast, “The Fool on the Hill” was mesmerizingly intense, the track slowed and stripped of any hint of jauntiness in this arrangement, the better to quietly celebrate an outsider’s insights and secret strength. Lifting her tear-filled eyes aloft, Jungr seemed momentarily overcome by the emotion the track evoked, before moving elegantly into a drop-dead gorgeous “Something”.
Throughout, Jungr applied her customarily intelligent approach to sequencing the set, with some songs juxtaposed and combined to form story cycles and suites. A wry, sharply pointed “Piggies” mutated into a delicious “Penny Lane”: “very strange”, perhaps, but wonderfully effective. A medley comprising a gender-switched “And I Love Her”, “All My Loving” and “All You Need Is Love” (the latter stripped of obvious anthemic associations to become simply conversational) charted youthful hope and longing leading to the affirmation of “I Will”. Segueing into an exquisite “Here, There and Everywhere”, a blistering “Getting Better” traded menacing, punky verses for redemptive choruses that implied the taming of male belligerence through love. Yet ultimately the narrative concluded with the separation of the couple poignantly evoked in “For No One”, Jungr ending the song on a surprising, perfectly judged note that suggested both mature ruefulness and resolve on the part of the abandoned male.
As presented here “For No One” took on the contours of a reflection on the challenges and liberations of feminism. Indeed, bantering affectionately with McDaniel between songs, Jungr also provided some characteristically quirky, thoughtful commentary on The Beatles’s significance in pop and counter-culture, reflecting (as she did with Cohen and Dylan) on the contrasting personas of Lennon and McCartney, and also suggesting how the band’s music not only mapped but also inspired social changes. The drugged-up craziness of “Come Together” was a supreme closer, Jungr acting her way through the most surreal lyrics with furious aplomb before she and McDaniel returned to the stage for the single-song encore of “In My Life”, delivered as a radiant and gracious benediction.
“Come Together” is very much the kind of show that one can imagine shifting and expanding as Jungr and McDaniel continue to tour it, perhaps taking on different songs and arrangements. (Personally, I’d swap a pair of charming but fairly inconsequential Cilla Black-associated tracks for something meatier. “A Day in the Life”, perhaps? Oh boy.) Thrilling and revelatory, the show is that rarity: an Anglo/American collaboration that’s actually worth celebrating, and that’s enough to restore your faith in “the Special Relationship”, after all.