Monday 30 November 2015

The Ballad of John and Barb

As I write this, some 24 hours after the event, I'm still on a kind of Fabs-induced high after going with Mrs Specs to see 'Come Together', an intimate cabaret performance of Beatles songs by Barb Jungr and John McDaniel. To hear musicians of this calibre dip into such a rich catalogue would automatically guarantee two hours of pure pleasure. But in fact the evening soon reveals itself as something unique. With almost every number, the duo had me - while simultaneously revelling in every familiar verse and melody - completely re-calibrating how I think and feel about the Beatles. What were these two people doing to make me react to music that - to be honest - I regard almost as part of my eardrums by now, in such a way that it was like hearing it completely afresh?

Well - I wasn't quite as surprised by this as you might expect, because I've been to see Barb Jungr live a few times now. I'm absolutely convinced she is one of the finest interpretative singers of our time. She's a jazz singer, for sure - a versatile voice capable of heart-rending tenderness and forthright assertion, a terrific improviser, often working in a small acoustic band context - but that description doesn't give anything like a full picture of her activities. Most known perhaps for her matchless recordings of Bob Dylan (and more recently Leonard Cohen) songs, she has also devoted projects to Elvis Presley, Nina Simone, French chanson, alongside albums featuring a variety of well-chosen covers (and some brilliant original songs woven in along the way). In particular, she seems to specialise in recording songs normally associated with men - somehow channeling the strength yet mining the latent sensitivity in the material. In this respect, the Beatles are ready-made for the Jungr treatment, in all their restless, thorny, fuzzy masculinity.

John McDaniel is a celebrated arranger (he's served as music director on eight Broadway musicals) who invited Barb J to teach at his cabaret conference in the US ... After discovering they were both Fab Fans, they gave a one-off gala performance of a Beatles medley, which then grew into this show.

(Can't find a credit for the fantastic double portrait!)

As a partnership, they're made for each other - certainly in this repertoire. Barb J grew up with Beatlemania going on, more or less, down the road. She's giving the insider view, re-living it, explaining the direct impact it had on her and her friends. John McD found the Beatles a little later on (as cabaret veterans, they get enormous comic mileage from this slight age gap) and took a more detached line - not just from being light years away in the US, but also, it's implied, with some possible herbal assistance. As such, he has the entire band in his head and hands, and treats the songs with respect, but not undue reverence. In his skilful and endlessly creative playing, you can hear the arranger at work, condensing all that melodic invention into his accompaniment - and you honestly don't miss the group sound. The treatments vary, so you can't nail him down to one approach: for a track like 'Mother Nature's Son', he's able to replicate the signature, circular hook in the middle of the overall sound, while for another - say, 'Back in the USSR' - everything is re-tooled - in this case, the original's surf rock is ground down into a swaggering, bluesy showstopper.

Meanwhile, Barb J's gift for reinventing the familiar was in glorious evidence throughout. I was particularly struck by her performance of 'Fool on the Hill', sung with such wandered delicacy that the character came fully to life. Filling in her own back story and experiences between tunes gave 'For No One' a genuinely arresting context - with the soft but brisk original seemingly meant to show McCartney at his most contradictory, she gave the song a real edge: reflecting the female emancipation of the time, we heard a kind of disdainful understanding between the two women - the one singing, the one in the song - as the latter casts off her lover.

There are so many reasons to love this show. (One purely personal one is the remarkable hit-rate for my personal favourites: 'Mother Nature's Son', 'Things We Said Today', 'In My Life', 'Hello Goodbye'... *sigh*.)

I loved the fact that some of the more neglected corners of the canon were brought into the spotlight: 'White Album' fans were very well served - we also heard a spine-tingling 'I Will', and even 'Piggies' made a cameo appearance - and it was great to hear the 'Magical Mystery Tour' tracks - I would never have predicted those.

I loved the unabashed ambition of the selections. 'Eleanor Rigby', stripped of its hyperactive string quartet and under dimmed lights, was stark and shattering. The duo used both of their voices to thrilling effect on, of all things, the 'Abbey Road' side 2 medley. And I will never forget the version of 'Long and Winding Road' - quite a divisive tune because of the different opinions about whether the whole 'Let it Be' record should've had the full-on Phil Spector production job or not; somehow all that extra oomph and power found its way not so much into the piano, but the voice, with Barb J delivering a vocal so strong and overwhelming we could've been in a stadium, let alone a studio.

And I loved the rapport. With the pair riffing on the 'chatty Brit / mild-mannered American' contrast, John McD was often in fits of laughter, seemingly flummoxed at what Barb J might say next (sample exchange - from memory, of course, so apologies if slightly awry: "He is improving his English." / "I'm making progress." / *eye-roll* "Well, yes, or prow-gress, as we correctly say it.") - but of course, they are utterly relaxed with each other and act as if they had been mutual artistic foils for years.

Sadly, the London run has ended (we were at the last of four nights), but I am sure that this show has a lot of life left in it yet. And with a canon as vast as the Beatles' legacy, one dares hope for a sequel. I certainly hope that somewhere along the way they record an album of their favourites - yes, the songs are fantastic to begin with, but what Barb and John brought to them has permanent value. One of the concerts of the year.

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