James Stewart’s George Bailey memorably discovered that “It’s a wonderful life” in Frank Capra’s enduring classic, a film described by Sally Potter as now seeming “positively Marxist in its values.” Although not alluding to the film directly, by putting “Beautiful Life” in their “Festive Feelings” Christmas show, Barb Jungr, Peter Horsfall and Jenny Carr seemed to make a nod in the direction of Capra’s title.
Written by Jungr and Adrian York, the jazzy, supple “Beautiful Life” came a few songs into the trio’s set at Soho’s great Crazy Coqs club on Saturday night. It was one of those moments – there are usually a number of them in Jungr’s shows – when you feel a shift in the energy of the room: the experience of a deep collective catharsis. At this time of mad consumerism, over-spending, and great waste, Jungr made the song itself into a little anti-capitalist beacon: a vivid celebration of nature’s joys, of what’s free, available and already there to be shared, if we’re open and awake enough to really experience it.
Always among the most infectiously ebullient and inclusive of performers, Jungr was in especially buoyant mood at Saturday night’s show, clearly relishing the interplay with the packed crowd, and with Carr and Horsfall, the former accompanying her on piano, the latter on trumpet. Making a few concessions to expected material via delightfully wry takes on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Winter Wonderland”, the set-list was otherwise as inventive as you’d expect - and as delectable - gently expanding the boundaries of what’s classified as Christmas music.
True, some of the featured songs have been presented by Jungr in other contexts. For example, Joni Mitchell's “River” (“this needs a gospel choir – and you’re it”, Jungr reminded us, inspiring the first of several joyous singalongs) formed part of her Stockport to Memphis album and “To Love Somebody” (here rescued from its placing in ITV3's 2015 Christmas ad) was included in her Nina Simone-dedicated shows.
But these inclusions all emerged new-minted here, with subtle rearrangements, Horsfall’s great trumpet-playing, and some gorgeously quirky, gospel-influenced three-part harmonies supplying wonderful fresh textures. Moreover, by incorporating material by Mitchell, Dylan and The Beatles (subject of her latest collaboration with John McDaniel), the show emerged as not merely a novelty item but rather as all-of-a-piece with Jungr’s other musical explorations.
As always, Jungr evoked and explored a wide range of human experience in “Festive Feelings”, treating each song as an encapsulated, highly emotional story. No nuance was neglected, no meaning skated over (pardon the pun).The show opened with “Ring Them Bells”, a gem drawn from her beloved Bob’s great 1989 album Oh Mercy, and progressed through a hilariously hammy and spiky “Fairytale of New York” to an exquisite, lusciously deep-toned “Waterloo Sunset.”
An unexpected take on Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “Vaya con Dios” transported us down Mexico way (“I don’t know about you, but at Christmas I always think about Mexico…” Jungr deadpanned, cheekily justifying the song’s inclusion in the set), while Horsfall got retro with lovely, warm leads on “Moonlight in Vermont” and “The Christmas Song”. “Peace in the Valley” found Jungr in thrilling gospel mode, hot-wired to the song’s images of transcendence and transformation and beautifully backed by Carr and Horsfall's harmonies. There was even a pleasing nod to Jungr’s years in The Three Courgettes (the group she formed in the '70s with Michael Parker and Jerry Kreeger) via the (inadvertently) double-entendre-strewn “Christmas is Coming.” Finest of all perhaps was “Here Comes the Sun,” which moved gloriously from tentatively-expressed hopefulness to ecstatic affirmation as it welcomed a redemptive thaw.
From Vermont to Mexico, New York to Waterloo we travelled, then, and the journey made “Festive Feelings” the most delightful of seasonal pick-me-ups. I went into the show at the end of a slightly grim day that had left me a bit dismayed by various factors: London’s grubbiness, the consumerist crush, other people’s demands or distancing. I emerged elated, reminded - as Jungr’s shows, in their richness and radical humanity, are wont to remind us - of the many ways in which it’s a beautiful life, after all.
"Festive Feelings" has finished at Crazy Coqs, but you can see the show at Altrincham and at Newbury later this week. Details here.