Bob Dylan's most revolutionary impact on songwriting was his personal presence in his work, autobiographical authenticity not discernible in, say, Cole Porter. British jazz singer Barb Jungr's performance tonight, accompanied by pianist Simon Wallace, is the strongest proof I've heard that his songbook will outlive him. Even if Dylan's records were melted down tomorrow, the restless vitality she finds in their content will survive.
Jungr's second album of his songs, The Man in the Long Black Coat, came out this year, nearly a decade after her first. This long study allows her to choose the real and concrete in his often gauzy words. The sultry Southern parable of "Man in the Long Black Coat" is relocated to her Stockport hometown. "Tangled Up in Blue" is as she says "the whole of Dylan's life wrapped up in one song", and she finds a different angle in its Cubist prism by recasting the woman he meets in a topless bar with the voice of an ordinary, unimpressed English girl. Suddenly, it could be happening yesterday, next door. Dylan's biography fades from view, as Jungr belts out the passion it inspired. Her soft caress over rolling piano of "It Ain't Me Babe" makes its images clear and fresh. The vision of slavery's sights and sounds in "Blind Willie McTell" is taken a capella. The hard truths of its best lines stand and stare at you.
"Things Have Changed", typical of latter-day Dylan in its more off-hand assembly of telling phrases, becomes a punchy showstopper tonight, and her gospel-blues holler recalls another great Dylan interpreter, Nina Simone. This sort of thing gets the best response from the jazz crowd in this upstairs east London club. The notion of Dylan choosing such a club instead of a folk one to build his early Greenwich Village legend is a suddenly tantalising thought. But what Jungr also shows is that at his best Dylan writes liberation songs in which style is a means to an end. She closes with "With God on Our Side", in a voice that's deceptively friendly as it moves through the guts of America's violent history. It's a shattering finale. Except for Dylan himself on a good night, this is the best way to hear his songs.
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