Barb Jungr is a great interpreter of songs. She is every bit as iconic as the singer/songwriters she chooses to translate and reinterpret. She’s a rock star; she looks and feels like the girl next door or your mom—if your mom were Patti Smith or Joni Mitchell. In her current show at 59E59 Theaters, the multitudinous lyrics of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen pour forth as if they were extemporaneous fancies, as if she were describing a day spent grocery shopping or teaching the kids how to play Scrabble. She delivers rock and pop music as if it were narrative recitative on pitch. Her gestures paint the images of the lyrics, and every repeated chorus propels the story in a new direction.
She tells us that she takes two years prepping for a new show. The effort is all on display. She wrings every nuance of meaning from every line. This is her “P” show, Politics and Philosophy, and Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan could make for a cheerless evening. But she always has a wink in her eye; she always plays every angle, from the contrary to the contradiction to the negation of the negation. She sets the mind on end thinking about lyrics in ways one would never have imagined.
Jungr opens the show with Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” a song with a Sondheimian cluster of words, which she handles effortlessly. She tells us that the title of the song is never heard as a lyric; rather, it’s just “a little trick that Bob plays on us.” She never changes the pronouns in the lyrics. She can embody man, woman, child, animal. Her choice of song order creates satire, humor, tension; she keeps you listening, thinking, feeling. She puts Dylan’s “Masters of War” alongside Cohen’s “The Future”; she dances to death, parties to murder, and then turns offstage to sing the most venomous words to an anonymous traitor to the world. (She cares for her audience; she would never spew such venom in our direction.)
Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep” is one of the highlights of the program. She ends this song about true intimacy by taking the hand of an audience member. Other treats are Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” and Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I waited with bated breath for her to take up the mouth harp—and she did, on Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”; with a pregnant pause and an a cappella ending for a dramatic finish, this is another favorite.
She is accompanied by accomplished singer/songwriter Tracy Stark on piano and percussionist Mike Lunoe. Most cover singers use arrangements that are identical to or at least mimic the original in some distinctive way; not so with Jungr. She and her arranger, Sam Wallace, breathe new life into classics. The musical arrangements are lush and lyrical, rhythmic and hard-hitting, as her fancy feels them. This allows her to sing anything she chooses. To pause at will. To speak. To think. To back phrase. Or to run a string of thoughts together. Jungr is an incredible musician—a jazz improviser with a voice that rides from the smoky basin to exalted peaks. She moves like a professional dancer or a real party girl. She weaves stories like a griot. She paints pictures like Michaelangelo.
Don’t see this show just for the familiar songs, go for the way she makes the unknown familiar and loved.
“Hard Rain – The Songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen”