A set of 16 songs, half of which were released in the 1960’s, and accompanied by Jenny Carr on piano, Barb Jungr, winner of Broadway World’s Cabaret Award received two standing ovations from an almost entirely older audience of around one hundred at the Black Box for the Out to Lunch Festival. This reception reminded me why so many artists love coming to Belfast citing the unique audience reception.
Jungr had been introduced using a quote from Billy Bragg as “the best interpreter of Dylan songs in the world”. She then told us that she has “a compulsive obsession with Dylan’s music” and “has spent seventeen years doing this work”.
Certainly there has been a lot written about the impressive penetration of Jungr’s investigation of Dylan’s writing. For that reason I walked in with relatively high expectations.
Over a rather tinny piano, Jungr began the first song, smiling through an upbeat version of “Things have changed”. Very quickly, certain performance ticks became evident.
During “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” when Jungr reached the lines “all your sea-sick sailors now are rowing home” she bent to make rowing gestures. In “Every Grain Of Sand “and the lines” every hair is numbered” she smiled, looked up and grabbed her hair, and again in the lines “I hear the ancient footsteps” she looked down at her feet and edged forward. In “Chimes of Freedom” and the lines “the whole wide universe”, slowly turning 360 degrees, she raised her head to stare at the ceiling.
This was seriously problematic. So many literal interpretations of the lyrics got in the way of trying to “feel” Jungr’s efforts to showcase her connectedness to Dylan’s work. Shelter from the Storm was particularly poor. Jungr completely missed the comforting sensitivity of this song through her fractured melody, dramatic gesturing, shouting and seemingly Kate Bush inspired vocal histrionics. Not so much Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, during which the audience was treated to yodelling and invited participation, more like stomping on Dylan’s door.
Too often the songs were over-sweet or raucous and theatrical. I can appreciate that many people feel Jungr understands Dylan, some think she adds to the canon. And in purely those terms, as an interpreter of Dylan’s songs, well there are distinguished precursors – Odetta, The Byrds, Maria Muldaur, Joan Baez, Patti Smith – in that company this simply wasn’t an impressive effort. Too often I was reminded of an off Broadway show tunes approach to work which is too nuanced to be delivered in such a fashion.
I know that I am entirely at odds with the audience, apart from my daughter, a huge Dylan fan who accompanied me to Maysfield Leisure Centre twenty four years ago to hear a stellar performance from Dylan, who thought that Jungr brought mania to the songs, “butchering them” in the process.
With Dylan, in his more emotive works, the sadness is earned; his songs were forged through the flames. There was no evidence of an understanding of that side of Dylan’s work this evening.
It wasn’t all difficult listening. For both myself and my daughter, the highlights were `I Want You` and `What Good Am I?` Jungr managed to convey the pathos in these two beautiful songs. In her introduction to them she made a thinly-disguised reference to Trump’s inauguration. From “I Want You”. she quoted the lines, ”the drunken politician leaps upon the streets where women weep” stating her belief that, “a lot of people will be weeping on Saturday!”
Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall
Her penultimate song, released in 1963, “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall”. Jungr fist-pumped, stomped and crouched her way through this, rushing verses together and missing the nuances of so many lines completely. It is impossible for me not to compare Jungr’s version of this great song with Patti Smith’s.
When she sang A Hard Rain in Stockholm, in a performance to mark Dylan’s Nobel prize for literature, she completely captured Dylan’s savage indignation and the subtleties of that song, without the need for cabaret theatrics, shouting or dramatic facial expressions.
Jungr’s passion for Dylan songs is clear and she has at times a powerful voice. But there was nothing impressive about this performance. It was often clumsy and laboured, raucous and staccato. It just didn’t feel authentic or believable. As an interpreter of Dylan songs, “it ain’t you Barb, it ain’t you I’m looking for”.
John Price is a Visual Artist and a life-long supporter of Bob Dylan’s work, owning an extensive collection of Dylan’s recorded material. Information regarding John’s upcoming exhibition can be found at the following link – www.capartscentre.com/2017/02/john-prices-works-on-paper-from-15-feb-through-to-16-mar/