By Martha Wade Steketee
British-born Barb Jungr is often described in creative cross-breed superlatives: Edith Piaf meets Carmen McRae, jazz meets blues, pop rock meets the Great American Songbook. She is, in fact, an absolutely charming raconteur with a taste for pop rock song stylists, with whom you are delighted to spend time in an intimate performance venue. I’ve followed her from the Metropolitan Room, 59E59 Theaters, and now Joe’s Pub and I’ve yet to hear her tackle a standard ballad out of the GAS. (I hear she also has hung with the swells at Café Carlyle in years past, and I’m totally charmed by that fact.)
Jungr at first misguided glance wants to be your talented friend with classy comfortable clothes and sing a few of her favorite tunes with you. I’ve heard her programs on the songbooks of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and her treatments of their tunes are disarmingly simple and exquisitely evocative. She crafts stories to reveal some aspect of herself that connects to a key element in a song to follow, and takes you on a potent journey through both unfamiliar territory and songs you thought you knew. Slow down most pop music and strip away the autotuned and reverb, and nonsense lyrics are revealed. With the artists Jungr selects, lyrics are layered bits of poetry, and her quiet, deliberate, intimate treatments augment their impact.
In her Dylan show “Man in the Long Black Coat” at the Metropolitan Room in 2012, I first experienced Jungr’s technique of deconstructing songs by American singer songwriters in jazzy-bluesy-barrelhouse-y style. I learned Jungr’s grand plan was to include songwriters like Dylan, Leonard Cohen, David Byrne, and even Elvis Presley in the Great American Songbook. Where there’s poetry in the lyric and elegance in a melody, a song is worth examining, she argues. I’ve become a complete supporter of her efforts.
Jungr’s newest cabaret creation “Float Like a Butterfly – The Sting Project” composed of songs from Sting and The Police was revealed at Joe’s Pub on four evenings in June. John McDaniel accompanied her on piano and participated in sweet harmonic duets as a full collaborative partner. This new show reaffirms my appreciation of her style and theatrical focus.
“Wrapped Around Your Finger” melded into “An Englishman in New York,” a love song to the sounds and sights of New York City. Between stories about the stultified later years of Quentin Crisp and recollections of lovemaking adventures with an ex-husband in a rural wheat field (and stories about why that’s a bad bad idea), Jungr and McDaniel led us though old lyrics they give new, pensive, thoughtful life.
“Moon Over Bourbon Street” toured us along the louche streets of New Orleans with a dark charm. “I have the face of a sinner but the hands of a priest,” the story goes. A deeply familiar Police megahit like “Roxanne” became a sweet aching ballad in the hands of these artists, that led into a marvelous and layered story of Jungr’s work as a coat room girl in a high-end London brothel when she was young and new to town, finally resolving in reflections on night-owl communities and people taking care of one another.
McDaniel soloed delightfully with a sweet soulful version of “August Winds” from the Sting-helmed 2014 Broadway musical The Last Ship – an observer on an overlook, dreaming of worlds just beyond, reflecting on “public moments” where “I hear the things I say but they’re not me” and “private moments” where “I drop the mask that I’ve been forced to wear.”
Jungr paused deep into the set, before taking on “Desert Rose,” to highlight the intricacy of the lyrical writing. Sting songs, she muses, are full of similar, hard to memorize words and phrases. “Desert Rose,” was performed as another delicate and dreamy duet with McDaniel, approached with trepidation and executed with aplomb.” I dream of rain / I dream of gardens in the desert sand / I wake in vain / I dream of love as time runs through my hand.”
At the end of the packed set came two resonant and familiar tunes that filled the hearts of all present in the room. “Message in a Bottle” bounced off the walls in a familiar resonant rhythm (“sending out an S.O.S.”), more familiar musically than complex lyrically. The sweetly passionate encore “Every Breath You Take” allowed lyrics to take the lead, that began as a story of remembrance and became a love song to each member of the audience. “Every move you make / Every vow you break / Every smile you fake / Every claim you stake / I’ll be watching you.”
And you, Barb Jungr, we’ll be watching you.
Barb Jungr: Float Like a Butterfly – The Sting Project. June 22, 23, 27, 29. Joe’s Pub @ The Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). https://joespub.publictheater.org/Tickets/Calendar/PlayDetailsCollection/Joes-Pub/2017/B/Barb-Jungr/ Her site: http://www.barbjungr.com/
Photo: Richard Hillman