Barb Jungr - Love Me Tender - The Times

BARB JUNGR is not a performer who cares much for the easy-listening aspect of the cabaret tradition. Her heart is closer to Brecht and Weill than Rodgers and Hart, let alone Rodgers and Hammerstein. A true cosmopolitan who addresses her audience in a homely Rochdale accent, she knows as much about American blues and gospel as she does about the legacy of Jacques Brel or Léo Ferré. Every show she presents is an impromptu journey into the unknown.

Her astringent sensibility can sometimes be a shade overpowering in a venue as intimate as Pizza on the Park. Her gestures belong on a larger stage, and her long, conversational introductions, laced with scholarly insights, sometimes undermine the mysteries of the songs themselves.

None of those misgivings matter one little bit when she weaves her stunning version of Love Letters Straight From the Heart, the opening track of her new album inspired by the music of Elvis Presley. Yes, you heard that right. While every other singer, it seems, is busy rummaging through Elvis Costello's catalogue, Jungr has set off in an entirely different direction, sweeping away the Graceland kitsch and casting an entirely new light on the singer who brought rock 'n' roll to Las Vegas. One of the most thoughtful British albums of the year, Love Me Tender is no less daring than Jungr's earlier reinventions of the songs of Bob Dylan on Every Grain of Sand.

It was Dylan, in fact, who cast the longer shadow over Jungr's opening set, a pensive affair in which her longtime accomplice Adrian York supplied the taut piano accompaniment. High Water (For Charlie Patton) remained as cryptic as ever; even a singer as resourceful as Jungr can only begin to scratch the surface of those lyrics. Ring Them Bells was suffused with gospel passion, however, and I'll Be Your Baby Tonight overflowed with half-suppressed longing. Jungr could teach Madonna a thing or two about how to convey sensuality through words alone.

In The Ghetto unwound over an insistent figure that evoked the pealing of bells. Jacques Brel made an appearance in the form of La Chanson des Vieux Amants, as translated by Jungr's colleague, Des de Moor. Jungr is perfectly equipped to handle a ballad as worldly-wise as this. By this stage of the evening, despite the wayward pacing, the temperature in the room had risen perceptibly.

Jungr and York, a perfect match, will be holding court until Saturday.

The Times
30 April 2005