A beaming Barb Jungr takes to the Purcell Room stage, looking for all the world like there’s no place she’d rather be on a Saturday evening. And it’s not just any Saturday evening, either: this is February 14th, Valentine’s Night, no less, and Jungr is here to present an evening of love songs in the Southbank Centre’s most intimate auditorium. “I don’t generally do whole programmes of love songs,” the singer admitted. “But tonight isn’t all about ‘Ooh, I’m in love, isn’t it lovely, ooh look at my skin, can’t you tell?’ No. We’re not just going to be doing songs about that.”
Such quirky, cheeky banter is central to Jungr’s singular stage persona, which combines playfulness and arresting intensity in equal measure. Fresh from a hugely successful tour (including a two week residency at New York’s 59E59) in support of her acclaimed recent album Hard Rain: The Songs of Bob Dylan & Leonard Cohen , the Rochdale-born, Stockport-raised Jungr was in buoyant form on Saturday night, her stunning vocals and infectious joy in performance combining with the brilliant contributions of her accomplished accompanists Simon Wallace (piano) and Davide Mantovani (bass) to create a delectable, diverse yet complementary set that mixed material by Noel Coward, Jacques Brel, Joni Mitchell, Tom Rush, The Beatles, and Dylan, among many others.
In a recent PopMatters piece, Robert Balkovich celebrated interpretations of male-authored songs by female performers, showing how singers such as Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Tori Amos have re-invigorated (and, in Amos’s case, often boldly subverted) the work of male songwriters through creative covers of their compositions. Jungr - who herself disdains the term “cover version” - certainly belongs in this distinguished company, for no matter what she sings, it all comes out Barb: impassioned, boundary-busting, and a totally personal and idiosyncratic artistic statement.
A self-described “chansonnier”, Jungr is one of those artists (June Tabor and Marianne Faithfull also spring to mind) who’ve only become more powerful as the years have progressed. And her mix of inspirations – she’s listed Doris Day, Liza Minnelli, Edith Piaf and Vesta Tilley among her icons – is evident in a juicy performance style that combines elements of jazz, torch and art song with cabaret, music hall and even stand-up comedy.
Vocally superb, and with Wallace and Mantovani providing delicate, subtle textures that give her plenty of space, Jungr uses her whole body in performance, and all of it is expressive, whether she’s crouching, bopping, pointing or otherwise gesticulating through Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” or getting wonderfully strident on Hank Williams’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. On “Mad about the Boy”, she’s practically a one-woman Noel Coward play, vamping and flirting to imaginary beaux and following up the line “I can’t afford to waste more time” with a knowing cackle.
Crucially, though, Jungr also knows the value of a more contained style too, and she demonstrated that on Saturday night with a sultry, subtly rearranged “I Love Paris” and - best of all - an absolutely exquisite reading of Dylan’s “I Want You,” slowing the jaunty song to a voluptuous crawl and expressing every ounce of ache and longing in the lyrics. It was one of those transcendent, revelatory moments where one hears a familiar, beloved composition entirely afresh. And on a stunning “Woman in Love,” Jungr also brilliantly surprised us, wrapping a tender hush around the song in the first half before letting rip in the second to make the track a cathartic, startling (and slightly scary) anthem of intent and self-belief.
Elsewhere, her performances of her own very beautiful “Last Orders”, of Ewan MacColl’s “Sweet Thames, Flow Softly” and of Mitchell’s “Carey” (the latter complete with joyful dance routine) had glorious embracing warmth. And her gift for sequencing showed in the way in which she paired songs, making them into sequels and suites to convey the ups and downs of romantic attachments. Here “Lazy Afternoon” merged brilliantly with Small Faces's “
”, and Tom Rush’s “No Regrets” was
followed by an English-language “Je Ne Regrette Rien”, while a
joyous “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)” segued straight into a rueful “Love Hurts”. Itchycoo Park
Steering clear of predictable musical theatre staples (no Sondheim, thankfully), Jungr’s musical affections don’t appear to lie far beyond the late 1970s, and she finds plenty of exciting material in the rock, pop, soul and jazz produced up to that period. Still, she might consider updating her repertoire a touch. As delightful and inventive as her takes on standards such as “My Funny Valentine” (which opened the show) and “What’ll I Do” (which concluded it) undoubtedly are, some engagement with the work of newer songwriters (try Morrissey, Amos, or Richard Shindell, for starters) could be galvanising.
Even so, Jungr never lacks for energy or engagement, whether at full-throttle or just pausing for a moment to close her eyes and sway to an instrumental passage. Cherishing the songs as deeply as she does, she can be as easy and irreverent with them as one can be with a lover, while also ensuring that every single word is heard and felt, ringing true and glowing like coal, to paraphrase her beloved Bob. There’s never a moment when you feel that she’s skating over the meaning of a lyric or is less that fully committed to communicating the song. Goofy and girlish, wise and womanly, she’s an amazing artist, and she made this particular show a wonderfully vibrant Valentine’s gift.