That’s Life: Barb Jungr and John McDaniel – The Crazy Coqs, London

Reviewer: Alex Ramon

Barb Jungr, radiant in pink, turns to John McDaniel, at the piano, with a loving smile as the pair harmonises beautifully on an exquisite version of Bacharach and David’s Trains and Boats and Planes during their show at The Crazy Coqs. In a week marked by divisiveness, media-stoked hysteria and the emergence of some fairly shocking hostilities, that simple expression of tender comradeship is particularly touching, and sets the tone for a rich and warm evening that leaves everyone present feeling energised and restored.

Jungr – one of the UK’s finest, most fearless singers – and McDaniel – the award-winning American pianist and composer – began their particular “special relationship” last year, with Come Together, a programme of dynamically re-arranged Beatles songs that debuted in the US, was presented at Edinburgh Festival, and then at London’s St. James Studio. Seeing Come Together at the St. James, it looked like the kind of show that was likely to expand and evolve as Jungr and McDaniel continued to tour it, and so it’s proved. Come Together has now developed into That’s Life, a show of two clear sections that turns to the Beatles songbook only in its second half, offering in the first a dazzling and surprising mix of material that ranges from Bacharach to Boy George, Bond theme to Sondheim.

Jungr and McDaniel’s artistry, and their affectionate rapport makes all of this diverse material feel cohesive. McDaniel’s piano-playing has more overt Broadway flavour than the jazzier stylings of Jungr’s other accompanists, and it’s seemingly inspired her to move into fresh areas. The first half of the show featured material by some writers whom Jungr, by her own admission, has “avoided” up to this point, as they seemed too predictable choices for her. Yet Sondheim’s What Can You Lose? (from Dick Tracy) and Weill’s and Ogden Nash’s I’m A Stranger Here Myself(from One Touch of Venus) are both stunning, the former as tenderly compassionate as the latter is thrillingly edgy.

Other surprises included When a Man Loves a Woman, which found Jungr oscillating spine-tinglingly between soprano and contralto tones, and Barry/Bricusse’s You Only Live Twice, revealed here as a fine piece of songwriting. McDaniel took the lead on a fantastic rendition of Stranger in This World” from Boy George’s musical Taboo, the line “the wicked ones rise and survive/And they’re running our lives” resonating particularly deeply. Closing the first half, a duet take on Billy Joel’s My Life became a superb expression of self-belief in the face of disempowering voices.

The Beatles’ material in the second half remained equally strong, and while it was hard not to miss some of the omitted songs that had featured in Come Together – including Piggies, Penny Lane, For No One and The Fool on the Hill– supple, inventive performances of Got To Get You Into My Life, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Something, The Long and Winding Road and the new addition of Imagine were compensation enough.

Jungr’s take on Here Comes the Sun now feels like the definite version of the song, a gorgeous slow-build that beautifully conveys the joyous, long-anticipated arrival of a redemptive thaw. Come Together, with McDaniel’s superbly funky playing augmented by Jungr’s harmonica blasts, continues to be a perfect set-closer, with Jungr acting her way through the most outré lyrics with furious and cathartic panache, before she and McDaniel returned to the stage for the gracious, understated single-song encore of In My Life.

Between songs, Jungris as sharp, spontaneous and hilarious as ever, regaling us with anecdotes about an under-attended Percy Sledge show, stepping into the crowd to direct the line “You look tired, love” at an audience member, and prefacing that song with a half-irreverent, half-affectionate story of tribute to Cilla that involved Paul O’Grady’s birthday party and a rogue hearing aid.

While lacking the more overtly political and philosophical heft of Jungr’s Dylan/Cohen show Hard Rain, or of her take on Nina Simone-associated material, That’s Life is a deeply compelling and hugely enjoyable experience. What’s particularly striking about the show is that it never feels like a mere nostalgia-fest. Rather, these two great artists find ways to bring old songs vibrantly into the present and to make them speak, both lovingly and urgently, to us today.

Runs until 2 July 2016 | Image: Contributed


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Sharp, spontaneous and hilarious

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