Barb Jungr

(Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts)



Barb Jungr, where have you been all my life? In the UK, Europe and America Jungr has been developing a dedicated following for the past 10 years or so, but has so far only been to Australia once, and that was last year to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, where she gave master classes and made so many good friends that one of them, the wonderful Matthew Carey, came with her on this trip round the country as her pianist. So far she has been to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, the Gold Coast and Katoomba. She’s watched whales, seen the Three Sisters, and made many more friends, and after Brisbane, she’s travelling back down the coast to Canberra. Busy lady, and it’s precisely that energy, enthusiasm and ability to engage with strangers, i.e., her audience, that makes this one of the most exciting shows I’ve seen in a long while.

In an interview with Andrew Ford on the Music Show (Radio National on Saturday morning), Jungr spoke about the term cabaret and how it had been debased by someone like Simon Cowell (the grumpy judge on American Idol), and how, because of these pejorative overtones, she prefers to call herself a jazz singer. Nevertheless she needs to connect with her audience in an old-style cabaret way, and it was therefore interesting to see the layout of the Judy performance space last night. Almost a quarter of the space at the front was taken up with tables and chairs, dimly lit with candles, and inhabited by, presumably, the more expensive ticket holders, most of whom were tucking into wine partially disguised in frosty buckets. A nod to a nightclub atmosphere, I guess. The rest of the audience were in the raked area behind, and it was full to bursting. This layout allowed Jungr to be very close to at least some of the audience, but her personality certainly leapt beyond those chosen few as the little girl from Rochdale (Lancashire not Queensland) chatted between songs, her accent veering excitedly from broad north country to transatlantic, with a little bit of estuary thrown in for good measure. They were stories we all relished, from anorak-clad Brits (possibly from Peckham) to her godmother in Melbourne who warned her about going out alone on those violent streets. Occasionally she’d fling in a French phrase with a sardonic grin, referring back to the long years of touring doing Piaf, or play out her tongue-tied meeting with Jeremy Irons who had chosen her version of the Bob Dylan song “I want you” on Desert Island Disks. It’s hard to believe that she could ever have been tongue-tied, but there we are. It was a good story too, because she’s a great mimic and actor.

And then there’s the voice, and what a voice. At one stage in her interview with Andrew Ford he asked her whether she ever improvised. Her reply was — with a dirty laugh — whatever a song can allow. And it’s that quality of spontaneity that marks her performance, from the anecdotes to the songs themselves. You feel as if she is singing these very well rehearsed pieces for the first time, and with an accompanist like Matthew Carey who allows her some soaring flights of fancy, just as she is happy to sit and listen to him improvising in the middle of a song, it becomes a very fresh and direct engagement with the audience. Added to this is her conscious desire to renew familiar pieces, so that her version of “Heartbreak Hotel” doesn’t even make the merest of gestures towards Elvis’s swivel hips. Instead it is full of yearning and loneliness, with a lower register growl as she repeats “I’m so lonely.” It’s a quite amazing new look at a song which has become so identified with a person, a place and a time. Similarly with the Richard Thompson classic “The Great Valerio” which she laments has usually been dirge-like in various versions, she presents it as a soaring, driving hymn to achievement and love.

Her Dylan songs are some of the most sheerly beautiful, like “It’s all over now, Baby Blue” and “I’ll be your baby tonight”, but the big surprise is her version of “Don’t think twice, it’s all right” which is so firmly fixed, in my mind at least, as a Joan Baez classic, that to hear it suddenly emerge anew like a butterfly from a chrysalis is quite mind-blowing. One reviewer on the flyer available in the foyer (no programs in cabaret) said that “Barb Jungr turned this reviewer into a Bob Dylan fan” and I know precisely what s/he means. It’s as if Dylan’s lyrics come into their own when they’re not accompanied by that gravelly voice. So that “If not for you” from his “little happy phase” (according to Jungr) she sings with relish for what she calls its “salty taste” and she belts out his gospel song “Ring them bells” as if she’s leading a Harlem choir.

There are so many high points, but I particularly liked her anecdote of Sandy and Hugh in Amsterdam as a prelude to Brownie McGhee’s “Rainy Day” and then her segue from this into a reference to one of those iconic Edward Hopper paintings about the loneliness of the city and the Dylan song “I’ll be your baby tonight” mentioned above. And then there’s her 78-year-old friend Ernest who prompts a lovely meditation on memory and how a small thing can bring back all the joy of a love affair, which leads into the Jacques Brel song “Marieke” with its mesmerising repetition of “between the towers of Bruges and Ghent.” I haven’t mentioned her new translation of “No regrets” or “Ne me quitte pas” for which she had to apply for permission to make the translation to Mme Brel who controls the estate. Or the little story about Colonel Parker who didn’t want Elvis to include “In the ghetto” on any of his recordings. Jungr’s version of it is a revelation, yet again. She opened the evening with one of her own songs “Beautiful Life” and that together with the gentleness and hope of Eric Bibb’s “Heading Home” in the second half summed up what I might call the philosophy of her performance.

The delightful “Dirty old river” or “Waterloo Sunset” by Ray Davies, founding member of The Kinks, was her encore, specially for Luke somewhere in the audience. Lucky Luke.

Playing Brisbane 22 September 2007, Coffs Harbour 25 Sept, Kincumber 27 Sept, Brunswick 28 Sept, Canberra 29 Sept.

Duration : 2hrs 25mins (including 25min interval).

— Barbara Garlick
(Performance seen: Fri 21st September 2007)