|“The greatest interpreter of the songs Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen that I’ve ever seen”
Barb Jungr with Simon Wallace (L) and Davide Mantovani (R)
Hard rain: Barb Jungr sings Dylan and Cohen
(Live at Zédel. EFG London Jazz Festival. 15 November 2017. Review by AJ Dehany)
Barb Jungr reinvents the truth-telling songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen for the post-truth age. With her albums Every Grain of Sand: Barb Jungr Sings Bob Dylan (2002), Hard Rain (The Songs Of Bob Dylan & Leonard Cohen) (2014) and Shelter From The Storm (2016), she has established herself as one of the most dynamic and thought-provoking interpreters of the songs of these two astonishing songwriters. Her angle on Dylan hinges on exploring the political continuities between the protest song mode of his early work and his ongoing symbolist surrealist word-salad. Her take on Cohen helps us work through the ambiguities and complexities of his violently tender meta-narratives.
Barb Jungr cut her teeth on the alternative cabaret circuit in the late ‘70s. Her dramatic presence and ability to work up an audience are allied to an exquisite musicality to provide a complete picture of these songs. Returning to the splendid Art Deco chambers of Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zédel, she threw herself onto the stage to It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding, not bleeding but waving. Jazz and cabaret are eager bedfellows. Accompanied by longstanding collaborator Simon Wallace on piano and Davide Mantovani on bass, Barb Jungr is the greatest interpreter of the songs of these two great writers Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen that I’ve ever seen – sometimes talking, growling, swooping down to a low register, soaring like a flute. Few can do justice to the full dynamic and emotional range of these songs as she does.
How often in life can you say an artist gave you a genuine moment of revelation? During First We Take Manhattan I had that moment of epiphany. Leonard Cohen’s songs from the 1980s onwards, once his voice had crinkled such that he felt the melodies needed ever more shoring up with backing singers, these fathomlessly dark narrations suddenly give way to the cheesy chorus of backing singers. For me “I’d really like to live beside you, baby” was always the opposite of “Don’t bore us get to the chorus”.
But when Barb Jungr sings “I’d really like to live beside you, baby” the Manichean chiaroscuro of light and dark that underpins the song suddenly makes sense. Those choruses I always thought were cheesy and wanted to skip are revealed to be integral to the complex yin and yang of meaning and message in the songs. When Barb Jungr pealed into that chorus, she shone a chink of heaven through the darkness. There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in…
The well-worn anecdote about Dylan and Cohen goes that Dylan was interested in Hallelujah – in the early ’80s, way before anyone took any notice of that song. (Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History does an incredibly moving history of this song’s fortunes between being forgotten and becoming a classic (on video). Bob asked Leonard how long it had taken to write. Two years, Cohen lied. It had been five. Cohen asked how long it had taken Dylan to write I and I. Fifteen minutes, said Dylan.
When Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Cohen said giving Dylan a Nobel Prize was like pinning a medal on Mount Everest. Dylan said very little. Introducing Chimes of Freedom, Barb Jungr said, “If you didn’t understand why Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, this song alone justifies it.”
She moves in and out of character between the registers of singing and talking, in Things Have Changed laconically stating “I used to care. Things have changed.” The droll delivery is funny but severe, capturing the hardness of the source. “Put her in a wheelbarrow,” she turned as a quip with a touch of Les Dawson and we laughed. The dryness of her wit is a perfect fit, but Barb Jungr also captures her authors’ tenderness and vulnerability, and she never balks at bringing whatever is required dramatically, on Blind Willie McTell blowing a wild harmonica (much preferable to Dylan’s, obviously).
Dylan’s Masters of War is more chilling than ever, an apposite response to the works of the Military-Industrial Complex, the conflation of politics and the machinery of war for profit, which is more entrenched than ever. “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do,” wasn’t spat out but softly uttered with pathos, pitying the sickness of these unarguably evil men. There’s nothing more haunting and empty than the warning “All the money you make will never buy back your soul”.
She continues the story. “Oh come on, Barb. Dylan’s dark. Leonard Cohen doesn’t go any darker than that, does he?” She didn’t need to mention Cohen’s swansong 2016 album You Want It Darker. They play 1992’s The Future with brooding gusto and the dark exuberance of cabaret, giving the densely cynical lyrics a renewed shock appeal. Hear a woman in her 60s say “Give me crack and anal sex”. Even Leonard used to sing “careless sex”.
“That’s gotta be rock bottom,” she said. You want it darker? Too dark. Cohen’s The Land of Plenty made an effectively understated bringer-upper opening to a hymnal singalong moment. Her reading of Dylan’s surreal Dantesque apocalypse road movie It’s a Hard Rain makes for an unlikely rousing Baptist uplift buoyed by Jungr’s ability to slip in and out of a talkier style of vocalising, confident in her own lightly Northern accent, weaving in a sense of her own history. She hails from Stockport and paints a grim scene of shops boarded up next to betting shops, with, she said, “The sense of people looking for an answer”. Introducing the almost-standard Everybody Knows, she stated that these people should have asked Leonard Cohen and his co-writer Sharon Robinson, because they knew.
“There’s a song we’ve left out. We have to do it.” Blowin’ in the Wind is recalled as an earnest spiritual, a jazz-folk reverie for times that never changed, a final call for an answer that never came. It’s a song beyond songs. Cohen once told Dylan that as songwriters Cohen was Number Two and Dylan was Number One. Dylan said no, you’re Number One, I’m Number Zero – a typically Dylanesque mind-twister implying that while Cohen is Number One, Dylan ain’t even on the damn scale.
Sincerely, A Dehany
AJ Dehany is the founder of musical variety night Bob Dylan Thomas. Listen online to the recorded radio broadcast celebrating Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize and marking the passing of Leonard Cohen: https://www.mixcloud.com/Resonance/bobdylanthomas_16dec2016_8pm_clearspot/
1. It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding
2. Who By Fire
3. Things Have Changed
4. First We Take Manhattan
5. Chimes of Freedom
6. Blind Willie McTell
7. Everybody Knows
8. Masters of War
9. The Future
10. The Land of Plenty
11. It’s a Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall
12. Blowin’ in the Wind
Barb Jungr – voice
Simon Wallace – piano
Davide Mantovani – bass