Dancing in the Dark – Barb Jungr – Treat Yourself
by Alix Cohen
“…dancing in the dark of the winter solstice…which can be actually The Winter or a dark Winter of the Soul…”
Barb Jungr, one of the most unique and eloquent interpreters of what she calls “New American Songbook” (after Elvis and Hank Williams) is briefly back in town at ever savvy 59E59 Theaters. Peppered by cheeky, humorous commentary and anecdotes about her past, the artist winds up a period of looking back with a program featuring rock, jazz, folk, blues, and gospel, yet never distinctly one or the other. Influences are so organic and symbiotic, Jungr has, in truth, created her own genre.
Songs by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Todd Rundgren and Hank Williams among others are stripped naked, illuminated in a way that gets to every juicy essence. Material is at the same time recognizable and more deeply resonant than renditions to which we’ve acclimated. Tempo is often slower; expression so considered it’s as if thoughts are being shared for the first time.
Part of this is due to visceral commitment. That music inhabits Jungr is as clear in the way she moves as vocals. Sometimes it’s the employment of perhaps the most expressive left hand (not holding the microphone) in the business; others it’s a dip, shift of hip, stroll or pugnacious swagger like cool, soulful eurhythmy. Physiognomy is also in play: Jungr appears to smile when she isn’t doing so. Watch her eyes, listen to inflection, timbre. The fascinating dichotomy keeps one receptively off balance.
Her strength and intelligence also contribute to Jungr’s musical choices. There’s not a single lyric, even aching with despair, in which she appears a helpless victim. Listen. It’s not the words that dictate here but the translation.
Then there’s that extraordinarily unusual voice. Jungr’s raspy, almost roadhouse ripple (not vibrato) creates physical frisson. She can sound feather light without becoming wispy, seamlessly slide from pithy alto to strains of folk-like mezzo, or punch through such as “Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache” (a great song by Sandy Linzer/Denny Randell) with hard, harrowing clarity.
In Jungr’s hands, “This Gun’s For Hire” becomes the miserable resignation of “a night worker” instead of just an insinuating, rocking rhythm and Lennon/McCartney’s “The Night Before” (treat me like you did the night before) loosing it’s bounce, a plea. Sticking up for the now often disparaged “crooner” style of performance, she offers “Can’t Get Used to Losin’ You” popularized by Andy Williams. Rapidly fed lyrics, we all join in. Songs by Carole King and Kris Kristofferson offer similar sway.
Leonard Cohen’s rarely heard “First We Take Manhattan” then we take Berlin is ably served as long note poetry; sexy, dark, knowing. It has the icon’s conversational style, thoughts seemingly loosely bound. One elbow on the piano, Jungr speaks the last verse – a breathy, lingering departure. Except by its author, I’ve never heard Joni Mitchell’s “River” performed better. With changes in phrasing, octaves, and back-up by Tracy Stark, the song has gospel sinew. “Tangled Up in Blue” is a whomp bumpa domp domp number carried on emphatic chords, adrenaline without speed, and sheer sass. An encore of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is pure and lovely.
Jungr communicates with her audience, sometimes almost collaring those within reach. She is startlingly open.
Tracy Stark adds her own flourish to terrific, iconoclastic arrangements by Jungr herself who added an occasional red hot harmonic to the mix..
Bottom two photos by Carol Rosegg