Photo Credit: Steve Ullathorne
Barb Jungr and John McDaniel opened their exploration of the 1968 songbook with a subdued rendition of the proto-metal anthem “Born To Be Wild,” (Mars Bonfire). In fact, their musical take on fourteen of the gutsiest classics from that tragic and intense year was consistently understated, allowing their vocal harmonies and Jungr’s gentle upper register to shine. Sometimes this strategy illuminated a song that had become too familiar in its iconic recording, but at other times it stripped the material of its essential guts.
Jungr and McDaniel’s reputations precede them. Jungr, Britain’s foremost cabaret stylist, has plumbed the 1960s songbook in programs showcasing the work of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone, and (with McDaniel) the Beatles. McDaniel, artistic director of the O’Neill Cabaret Conference, a multi-Emmy and Grammy Award winner, and a Broadway conductor, showcased his arranging chops by reimagining the Janis Joplin screamer “Piece of My Heart” (Ragovoy/Berns) in a slow, gospel-tinged 3/4, and introducing surprising rhythms into the familiar strains of “The Age of Aquarius” (Rado/Ragni/McDermott). This is a duo who clearly brings years of expertise to the cabaret stage and to this material in particular, and at their best, they presented familiar songs in tasteful original arrangements that pleased by virtue of their sheer loveliness (“America” (Paul Simon) and “Love Child” (Taylor/Wilson/Sawyer/Richards) were particular standouts).
There hasn’t been a year like 1968 for 50 years—but, as Jungr and McDaniel pointed out, 2018 comes close to matching it in terms of strife, political upheaval, and the overturning of norms. The duo concentrated on using the songs of 1968 to illuminate the issues of our own troubled era, rather than placing the songs in a historical context—with mixed results.
On the plus side, McDaniel’s reflective solo turn on “Son Of A Preacher Man” (Wilkin/Hurley) read like a gentle reminiscence of a long-ago love affair—a version that would have been unthinkable in 1968, a year before the Stonewall riots. Equally illuminating was Jungr’s “Back In The USSR” (Lennon/McCartney), cheekily sung from the point of view of Donald Trump (“Melania, disconnect the phone!”), and “Do You Know The Way To San Jose” (Bacharach/David), set up by Jungr as a commentary on the chilling effect of urban real-estate prices on millenials’ hopes and dreams.
The inherent excitement of the 60s songbook remained elusive, however, until the final number, “The Flesh Failures/Let The Sunshine In” (Rado/Ragni/McDermott) when Jungr led a singalong in the aisles. When she let loose with a muscular belt, and McDaniel matched her with percussive, driving energy at the piano, the room came alive for the first time. The music of 1968 lives on not just because of the vitality of its familiar recordings but because of its raw humanity. In the final number, I felt as if I had walked out of a museum onto the street. In 1960s parlance, the street was where it should’ve been at the whole time.