Tuesday 21 May 2024

Concert Review: Barb Jungr - Singing into My Seventies (Crazy Coqs, May 2024)

Barb Jungr
(Photo by Steve Ullathorne)

It's not everyone who'd necessarily opt to celebrate their 70th birthday by performing a trio of shows - each one made up of completely different, challenging musical material drawing on a repertoire of about 40 years.

But if there's one thing we know about Barb Jungr by now it's that she doesn't take expected routes. So that's exactly how Jungr spent her 70th - with a three night residency at one of her favourite venues, Soho's Crazy Coqs, accompanied at each show by a different long-time collaborator on piano.  

The first show on 9th May (Jungr's birthday night itself) found Jenny Carr joining to perform a set titled Dark Love: Elvis, Chanson & More. The 10th May show presented Jungr alongside Simon Wallace with a Dylan-centred programme, while the final night saw John McDaniel re-teaming with Jungr on a set revisiting their beautiful collections of work by The Beatles and Sting.

I was only able to make it to the 9th May performance, but have seen Jungr in concert many times since 2015 and it's always a unique, profound and exhilarating experience. She is, without a doubt, one of the greatest of contemporary singers: her supple voice, always exceptionally expressive but undiminished and deepened with the years, is able to dig into a dazzling range of material to find new and surprising qualities. And she's no slouch as a songwriter herself, either. 

But live she's even more than that: a great mover (in the sense of giving a vivid physical life to each song), and a spontaneous, hilarious and often subversive story-teller. At a Jungr show, you never quite know where the between-song chat will go: "I was obsessed with the Gothic nature of swamps," was one of the gems she shared this time around. But what might initially seem to be a non-sequitur always ends up adding to the texture of the song she's about to perform. Movement, gestures, delivery, chat - for Jungr, it's always about serving the story of the song in the most expressive way. 

Barb Jungr
(Photo by Steve Ullathorne)

With only one Jacques Brel piece, "The Tender Hearts," featured, the 9th May show didn't exactly adhere to its title - a case of 'its my birthday and I'll shake up the set-list if I want to', perhaps. But it was a rich and glorious evening nonetheless. Jungr opened with a punchy "Last Train to Clarksville," placing the song in a Vietnam context that I for one had never been aware of. As the evening progressed, connections between the  songs emerged, whether by theme - loss and separation were big - or by specific imagery: trains pulling out of stations, walking, rain. "It does get cheerful in a bit," she deadpanned at one point. 

With Carr's brilliant piano-playing as a by turns delicate and dramatic accompaniment, highlights included a pair of Elvis songs, drawn from Jungr's often wonderfully weird and spooky 2005 Love Me Tender album, a deeply moving "In the Ghetto" and "Kentucky Rain." With Jungr's delivery morphing from gossipy confidence to a preacher's declamation, the rendition of  Dylan's "The Man in the Long Black Coat" was staggering. And so, in an entirely different way, was "Au Depart," an extraordinary piece of writing by Robb Johnson that conjures a world of history, absence, loss, leave-taking and starting over through its economical images. With Johnson himself in the audience, Jungr performed the song with a captivating stillness that made each word pierce the listener. 

Jungr placed "Au Depart" in the context of the post-war refugee experience of her Czech father. This was one example of the resonant way she wove personal stories through some of the songs, from teenage Stockport memories to a traumatic visit to the eye hospital with her beloved mother (who sadly passed away just before Christmas last year) to her joy at getting a dog (Bambi, from Hungary). The latter relationship was celebrated via a rendition of Cat Stevens' "I Love My Dog," a warm performance of the song and a wry deconstruction of it at the same time. 

Indeed, when the evening did "get cheerful" it was with that infectious, soul-enhancing energy that's one of Jungr's essential qualities as an artist. She expresses a sheer joy in communicating with an audience that's often sadly absent from performers half her age.  A glorious take on Jeff Barry's "Walking in the Sun" and a singalong "Forever Young" were irresistible.  Carr led the crowd in a chorus of "Happy Birthday" before Jungr's rollicking version of "Walking in Memphis" sent us out of the club on an exultant high. 

From Ella to Emmylou, June Tabor to Joan Baez, Jungr joins the many female artists who've continued to perform dynamically in their later years, blowing apart pervasive ageist and sexist assumptions in the process. "I couldn't think of anything I'd rather be doing than singing tonight," Jungr said. A more vibrant and vital artist than ever - listen to last year's blistering My Marquee album for recorded proof - may she continue to do so for many more years to come. 

Thursday 16 May 2024

Sight and Sound (June 2024 issue)


The June issue of Sight and Sound is out now. I reviewed Ellen E. Jones's new book Screen Deep for this issue.