Barb Jungr - Man in the Long Black Coat Live in NY - Times Square Chronicles

Feelings and attitudes about Bob Dylan fall into three categories: millions love him, millions can't stand him and there is that vast middle-like independents in the political spectrum-who have always appreciated the messages in his lyrics but have had little tolerance for the messenger's singing style. Even the cliché - like "chalk scratching a blackboard" has been inadequate in characterizing Dylan's voice, something the writer Joyce Carol Oates once described "as if sandpaper could sing." I've long been one of those indifferent to Dylan because of the dark rawness of that voice and never thought I'd discover a singer who could shine a new light on his words for me.

But now I've heard Barb Jungr, an acclaimed British-born chanteuse (and 2008 Nightlife Award-winner as "outstanding cabaret vocalist"), who has been dazzling cabaret audiences from coast to coast with her Dylan show "Man in the Long Black Coat." With a rich voice that ranges from a whisper to a belt, an ease with bringing a variety of emotions to the songs, combined with intricate yet accessible arrangements, Jungr doesn't just interpret 13 Dylan classics, she re-imagines them. During her recent run at the Metropolitan Room, Jungr observed that Dylan "doesn't have a conversation with his feminine side," which made hearing his songs sensitively and "righteously" (her favorite Dylan word) delivered by a female all the more fascinating and engrossing.

Jungr's energy and passion for the material is evident from the first bars of "Tangled Up in Blue," which becomes a jazzy, finger-snapping epic opener, followed by a ballad-like interpretation of "It Ain't Me Babe."

With a delivery both authoritative and adorable, Jungr relates her fascination with how Dylan could write songs about "life experiences he hadn't yet lived" and "the monster that grows inside when in love." Jungr probably could include more than 13 songs in her 90-minute show, but chooses to spend considerable time on her insights into and anecdotes about the famed folk/blues icon and it works. Jungr brings a cheeky humor to her between-songs script, an ideal juxtaposition to the intensely emotional numbers.

After taking issue with a British newspaper listing "The Times They Are a Changin'" as only the 4th best political song of all time, Jungr delivers the classic as a lyric poem, featuring a pulsating keyboard interlude from her pianist, MAC-award winner Tracy Stark, who also provides Jungr with terrific, yet subtle background vocals throughout the set. Jungr then pulls great laughs out of the audience when introducing her show's title song. "I think it's about death," she says, "but what if it's really just about man in a long, black coat." Either way, Jungr's interpretation makes it a haunting opus. Stark follows with great work on "Things Have Changed," (from the film The Wonder Boys) giving it a hybrid classical/Latin groove.

Jungr's ability to inhabit Dylan's lyrical world only grows in intensity as the set moves along. She transforms the bouncy "I Want You," into a heart-wrenching ballad sung almost entirely in a whisper (with Stark echoing the chorus line), plays the harmonica on a gospel-tinged version of "Don't Think Twice," and reminds everyone why "Sara" ("radiant jewel, mystical wife") is Dylan's greatest love song, cooing the number with her eyes shut until the third chorus. The bluesy "Trouble in Mind" is Jungr's nod to Dylan's gospel period and late 1970s conversion to Born-Again Christianity, and features Stark's wonderful mid-song piano riffing. Barb then grabs the harmonica again on "Blind Willie McTell," Dylan's ode to the influential blues singer and guitarist of the 1920s to ‘40s.

Jungr's take on "Like a Rolling Stone," is both rhythmic and minimalist and she makes it totally her own, even getting away with snapping her fingers through the whole song-practically a cardinal sin of cabaret-because she's completely on beat, making it work as great instrumental accompaniment.

If the audience hasn't become totally enveloped by this point, Jungr ensures they will by turning "Forever Young" into a hard-driving gospel rocker, working the whole Met Room stage, and getting the crowd to join her on the two-word chorus. The choice of "With God on Our Side" (from the 1964 album "The Times They Are A-Changin") as an encore couldn't have been more ideal; a reminder of Dylan's true folk/protest song essence. Through Dylan's words, Jungr achingly chronicles the justification for a litany of wars before offering "If God is on our side, he'll stop the next war."

While Barb Jungr is much more than a Bob Dylan tribute artist, her show celebrating one of the world's greatest troubadours was-for this Dylan non-believer anyway-a righteous revelation. She continues the show at the Metropolitan Room on October 27, 28, and 29 (all at 7PM) and will back in New York next April.

Times Square Chronicles
28 October 2011