BWW Reviews: Britain's Barb Jungr Makes Stirring Political Statements Through the Songs of Bob Dylan & Leonard Cohen in Intense, Compelling Show at 59E59
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary
by Stephen Hanks
As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don't hate nothing at all
--Bob Dylan, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," written in 1964, recorded in 1965, from album Bringing it All Back Home
Really, Barb Jungr? You had to come all the way across the pond from England to depress the hell out of us New Yorkers when we're already pretty depressed?
Of course, I'm being facetious. Any visit by celebrated chanteuse Barb Jungr to a New York cabaret stage or theatre is a cause for jubilation. Slightly less than a year since she rocked 59E59 with her week long run of Dancing In the Dark (review here), Jungr was back on that stage with a new show based on her recently released, highly-acclaimed CD, Hard Rain: The Songs of Bob Dylan & Leonard Cohen. But where Dancing In the Dark was Jungr's introspective take on a few classic pop songs (including some Dylan and Cohen), her Hard Rain set is truly dark and Jungr doesn't apologize for that. In fact, often during this collection of songs written by two of pop music's foremost dark poets of the soul (with stirring arrangements by Jungr and her CD Producer Simon Wallace), Jungr readily admits the set is depressing because her intent was to focus on Dylan and Cohen compositions that are at once powerful, personal, political, philosophical, and often prophetic (that's Barb's illuminating alliteration, not mine). Prior to her second number, Cohen's "Who By Fire," Jungr tells her audience, "It's not fun, glad you're here, and here's a song about death." Experiencing Jungr's opening night performance of Hard Rain this past Tuesday night was to observe a brilliant vocalist--who infuses hints of jazz, blues, and theatricality into every performance--at her most intense and interpretive best.
And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?
--Leonard Cohen, "Who By Fire," 1974, from album New Skin for the Old Ceremony
Jungr's presentation of this particular show at this particular moment in human history couldn't be more timely and reflective of a general global anxiety (which she observes in her "Making of the Hard Rain CD" video, below). I hate to be a "Debbie Downer" or "Stevie Sad Sack" (perhaps you can just call me Stephen Angst), but the human race and, more specifically, America are not in a good place right now. Sure, the economy has improved a bit, there are more folks with health insurance, we're getting closer to full acceptance of Gay Rights, and soon all American adults who wish to may be able to smoke marijuana with impunity. But the myriad big picture issues the planet and this country are facing read like a dirty dozen cabaret show set list of troubles and woes. In no particular order of importance, let's explore them, shall we?
- The Potential Ebola Epidemic
- The Militarization of the Police
- Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and the Ukraine
- Continuing Israeli-Palestinian Tensions
- Worldwide Subjugation of Women (including in the US)
- Worldwide Poverty (including massive levels in the US)
- Demonization of Immigrants
- Racism and US Voter Suppression
- Income Inequality
- Corporate Greed
- Mass Killings and the Gun Culture
- Planet Destruction (featuring Climate Change and Animal Extinctions)
And that's all with a liberal Democrat in the White House. Just imagine if one of Dick Cheney's acolytes was in there.
People are crazy and times are strange
I'm locked in tight, I'm outta range
I used to care, but things have changed
--Bob Dylan, "Things Have Changed," 2000, from the Wonder Boys film soundtrack
Probably the most depressing thing about Jungr's Dylan/Cohen set--as Barb herself points out--is that the lyrical and poetic statements about greed, racism, and war that Dylan was making as far back as 1962 unfortunately still resonate more than a half century later. As for Cohen, some of his more fatalistic song lyrics written over just the past 25 years are clearly coming from someone who is more a pessimistic, yet visionary poet than a raging musical madman. The upshot as we near the year 2015? Sorry to break the news to you kids, but the human race just ain't evolving fast enough.
I'm guided by a signal in the heavens
I'm guided by this birthmark on my skin
I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
--Leonard Cohen, "First We Take Manhattan," 1988, from the album I'm Your Man
With MAC Award-Winning Tracy Stark at the piano (she is Jungr's Musical Director whenever Barb performs in New York) and Mike Lunoe on percussion (he was sturdy, yet subtle throughout), the blonde-haired Jungr (who, by her own admission, turned 60 this past May) entered wearing a black jacket over a bright red blouse and tight black pants. In past shows, Jungr hasn't employed a percussionist, serving with Stark as a one-woman orchestra on harmonica, tambourine, or shaking an egg. Besides, Jungr's vocal approach to lyrics is so intricately interpretive and tempo changing that a conventional band (say, with guitar, bass and drums) would only undercut her mission: Getting you to hear--really hear--the words of the songs.
Tolling for the deaf an' blind, tolling for the mute
For the mistreated, mate less mother; the mistitled prostitute
For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an' cheated by pursuit
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.
--Bob Dylan, "Chimes of Freedom," 1964, from the album Another Side of Bob Dylan
Jungr is nothing if not fearless and she opened with Dylan's "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," delivering this 15-verse song performance-art style like a rapid-fire lyric poem and not dropping a single word. When in verse 12, Jungr sings, " . . . Bent out of shape from society's pliers . . . Cares not to come up any higher . . . But rather get you down in the hole . . . That he's in," she slowly shimmies her body into a baseball catcher's squat. Some in the audience might have found the lyrics difficult to follow at such a break neck pace, but Jungr's offering was still mesmerizing.
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded; everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed, the poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes, everybody knows
--Leonard Cohen, "Everybody Knows," 1988, from the album I'm Your Man
Jungr immediately followed with Cohen's haunting "Who By Fire," the words and melody for which the Jewish-born composer seemed to borrow from the Unetaneh Tokef, an 11th-century liturgical poem recited by Jews when the Torah ark is opened on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Stark's piano was particularly powerful on this one. Dylan's "Things Have Changed" (not on the CD) was arranged with an up tempo bossa beat. Jungr may currently be the world's leading interpreter of the Dylan discography and she includes this 2000 song from the Wonder Boys film soundtrack in all of her Dylan shows because she seems enamored of the lines: "Feel like fallin' in love with the first woman I meet . . . Puttin' her in a wheel barrow and wheelin' her down the street." Jungr uses these lyrics as an opportunity to riff on Dylan's views of women and to "make cheap jokes out of Bob's material." But for this show, poking sarcastic fun at the lyrics of both writers allowed Jungr to offer some much needed comic relief to the very intense atmosphere in the theatre engendered by such heavy songs. In addition to being a compelling vocalist, Barb Jungr can be a delicious stream-of-consciousness raconteur.
You've thrown the worst fear that can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children, into the world
For threatening my baby, unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood, that runs in your veins.
--Bob Dylan, "Masters of War," 1962-63, from the album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
After Jungr channeled Cohen's troubled potential terrorist in the cinematic "First We Take Manhattan (Then We Take Berlin)," she segued into a counterbalance with Dylan's 1964 opus "Chimes of Freedom," a lyric the music critic Paul Williams once called "Dylan's Sermon on the Mount." Before the song, Jungr joked about how she was confident a sophisticated New York audience could stay with her on something with 47 verses (of course, it wasn't nearly that long), and then proceeded to offer a most beautiful and powerful rendition in gospel ballad style.
Give me back the Berlin Wall; give me Stalin and St Paul
Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima
Destroy another fetus now; we don't like children anyhow
I've seen the future, baby: it is murder
--Leonard Cohen, "The Future," 1992, from album of the same name.
For Dylan's story song about "Blind Willie McTell," his ode to the influential blues singer and guitarist of the 1920s to '40s, Jungr grabbed her harmonica and riffed with Stark and Lunoe on the up tempo number. But then it was back to bleakness for Cohen's "Everybody Knows," a prophetic take on the end of the world. Could any lyric be timelier than this one? "And everybody knows that the plague is coming . . . Everybody knows that it's moving fast." Please say Ebola ain't so, Barb. Things didn't get any more uplifting on two more Cohen songs, the bluesy tempo with more apocalyptic lyrics of "The Future" (also not on the Hard Rain CD), and the intense ballad, "1000 Kisses Deep," from Cohen's 2001 album, Ten New Songs. But there was redemption and hope in another number from that same album, "Land of Plenty," which Jungr transformed into a passionate gospel audience sing-a-long on the line, "May the lights in The Land of Plenty, shine on the truth some day." Indeed.
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall
--Bob Dylan, "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," 1962, from the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Jungr had many politically tinged Dylan songs to choose from for her recent CD and for this show, but she pulled off something of a statement trifecta in the second half of the set. "Masters of War," Dylan's intense anti-war critique focusing on the relentlessness of American militarism, was written while John F. Kennedy was U.S. President and before the Vietnam War was even really a thing. "Come you masters of war . . . You that build all the guns . . . You that build the death planes . . . You that build all the bombs . . . You that hide behind walls . . . You that hide behind desks . . . I just want you to know . . . I can see through your masks." How resonant is that lyric sounding right now? And during Jungr's impassioned, almost pleading, finale on "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," all one can think is that the hard rain is already falling and has been for decades. Then, of course, there was the obvious encore song, the Dylan classic that just about says it all.
Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
Yes, how many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
--Bob Dylan, "Blowin' In the Wind," 1962, from the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Barb Jungr delivers each of these iconic Bob Dylan songs both melodically and methodically, as if she were offering the audience her own political observations on the state of the world, while at the same time asking, "Can you believe these 52-year-old words still apply today? Let's do something, people!"
We can do something, people. There's an election on Tuesday, November 4. VOTE! The answer is blowin' in the wind.