Sunday night at Joe’s Pub, cabaret singer Barb Jungr‘s polished and passion-driven new show with pianist/singer John McDaniel entranced a New York City crowd that looked like it consisted mostly – and not surprisingly – of Boomers.
Best known for her colorful, often jazzy interpretations of Bob Dylan tunes, and currently hawking a new CD of songs by Sting and The Police, Jungr had for this show collaborated with McDaniel on a sparkling set of songs from the year 1968, precisely half a century ago. Among the show’s merits was a reminder of the greatness of that era’s popular music.
1968: Let the Sun Shine In opened with “Born to Be Wild,” the still-ubiquitous Steppenwolf hit that gave us, as Jungr reminded the crowd, the term “heavy metal.” The set closed with a rousing medley from the musical Hair and, as an encore, a gentle duet arrangement of “Dock of the Bay.” In between, the pair delivered a colorful if only faintly psychedelic tapestry of familiar rock, pop, folk, and R&B tunes creatively reimagined, sometimes with a touch of camp, and all still relevant.
Along the way Jungr related a few tales of her excitable teenage years in provincial England 50 years ago. Her wonderful vocal control and broad range remain fully intact, and the decades have deepened but not roughened her winning charisma. Singing “Aquarius” to a herky-jerky 10/8 beat, she noted that Hair opened off-Broadway in this very building (Joe’s Pub is part of the Public Theater). Fond of transforming songs by changing the feel, the pair took the ever-gorgeous “Angel in the Morning” in a luxurious 12/8 time, Jungr singing with jazzy phrasing and a soft sad Sinatra-esque sense of knowingness.
McDaniel, an excellent singer as well as a fine pianist, sang the lead on “Son of a Preacher Man,” building the epic Dusty Springfield number to a gospel-like thunder. Jungr ripped a wailing harmonica solo on a bluesy “Back in the USSR,” recalling the pair’s 2016 album of Beatles covers. The Fab Four also surfaced as Jungr and McDaniel traded off in a medley of “Revolution” and the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” Meanwhile back in the USA they reminded us that Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” is one of the most beautiful songs of its – no, of any – era.
Jungr recalled the feminist advances of the late 1960s, dramatized in the once-shocking lyrics to The Supremes’ “Love Child.” The set’s first big emotional climax, the tune was set to a funky beat and put across with passionate intensity.
After McDaniel sang a heartfelt “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” Jungr brought down the house with the Dylan-penned “This Wheel’s on Fire.” She explained that she had first heard the song in the recording by Julie Driscoll and Adrian Edmondson. So have many fans of Absolutely Fabulous, including yours truly – it was the theme song. (I really came to appreciate it when I sang it some years ago in a sadly short-lived Byrds tribute band.) Jungr wove the verses into a creepy, snarling, politically powerful drama, first putting into our heads the image of Shakespeare’s Wyrd Sisters singing it “over a pot in Scotland.”
After a lovely jazz-waltz version of “Piece of My Heart” eased the tension, Jungr sang “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,” usually considered lighthearted fluff, with a Streisand-esque tone and smooth harmonies from McDaniel. Indeed, stunning two-part harmonies lifted many of the songs on the program to an even higher level, giving the two-person show an almost orchestral feel at times.
Fabulous as she is, it will take a much more cosmic force than Barb Jungr to convince me that Hair was ever a good show. But the buoyant singalong she made of “Let the Sun Shine In” was irresistible, and apropos for the rainy New York City night.