Celebrations of Stockport – the Greater Manchester town described in hackneyed terms by Paul Morley as a place of “slumped skies and enclosed air … the town I couldn’t wait to escape from” – can’t be said to be ten a penny. But, never one to take the predictable view, Barb Jungr offered a love letter of sorts to the place that she grew up on her great 2012 album Stockport to Memphis. That record represented something of a departure for Jungr, combining songs by some of her favourite writers – Dylan, Mitchell, Hank Williams, Sam Cooke – with original, deeply personal compositions that reflected on Jungr’s background in Stockport, thereby evoking what the singer believes to be the “special connection” binding the North-West of England and North American coasts.
At Soho’s wonderful Crazy Coqs club on Sunday night, Jungr (fresh from the recording of her new album and her debuting of a Beatles show in the States and at Edinburgh) revisited Stockport to Memphis in spell-binding fashion with Simon Wallace (co-composer of most of the original songs on the record) on piano and Davide Mantovani on bass. Listening to this trio – and this is the fourth time I’ve seen them on stage in the past year, following their Valentine’s Night show and two City of London Festival gigs – is an unalloyed joy, their wonderful rapport delivering shows that are always reliably confident and accomplished but also always fresh, spontaneous and surprising. The nimbleness with which Jungr, Wallace and Mantovani move through moods, making connections between apparently disparate songs, is simply sublime. Combining the observational humour of a Victoria Wood with the all-out, passionate intensity of an Edith Piaf, Jungr’s performances are totally fulfilling emotional experiences, leaving the audience elated, inspired and, at a profound level, changed.
The set-list for Sunday’s show, the first of a series of Jungr residencies at Crazy Coqs, re-ordered and often subtly re-arranged some of Stockport to Memphis’s songs, adding additional surprises, to boot. Jungr’s years of close attention to, and committed performance of, the work of numerous song-writing greats has clearly had its benefits on her own song-writing, which is evocative, economical, rich in specific detail, yet full of open spaces for the listener. The beautifully constructed “New Life,” referencing both her leaving of Stockport and her parents’ emigration experiences, resonated deeply, gaining even greater poignancy and pertinence in the context of the current refugee crisis. The slinky “Urban Fox” presented an encounter with the titular critter as a reminder of the natural wildness suppressed by gentrified city living. The album’s title track was as punchy and affirmative as the full-band album version, as Jungr joyfully evoked her early musical discoveries and the exciting, still-evolving journey that they set her on.
Between these songs, Jungr vibrantly interwove material from the album by other writers that complemented the original material beautifully. Highlights included a magnificently aerated, gender- switched version of The Zombies’s “She’s Not There”, a liberating take on Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon’s “Breakin’ Down the Walls of Heartache” and an achingly beautiful reading of The Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues.” Jungr transformed that boisterous song into the tenderest and most redemptive of ballads, digging deep in to the redemptive sentiments of Scott and Wickham's lyrics: “Tomorrow I will be loosened/ From bonds that hold me fast/The chains all hung around me/Will fall away at last”. Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" was ingeniously reinvented as a dialogue, and Jungr's delivery of the line "His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean" was especially cherishable. On Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”, Jungr departed the stage and ventured into the crowd, directing the “you’ve been faithful – give or take a night or two” lyric at a (slightly perturbed-looking) audience member.
There are few more gracious and hospitable artists than Jungr, few who create such an inclusive and loving ambience for the audience. But, like all the best performers, Jungr also keeps a palpable element of unpredictability, of danger – even of punky threat – in the air, ensuring that the evening never gets too cosy. This was nowhere more apparent than on a breathtaking rendition of Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole” which moved from gleaming-eyed parody to visceral emotion as Jungr brilliantly embodied the narrator’s wavering between resistance and capitulation to the Devil’s temptations. She closed the show with Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. Deeply moving, and again unavoidably illuminating responses to the current crisis, it was the perfect benediction with which to send us travelling on.
Jungr returns to Crazy Coqs on Oct 4th. Details here.