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A lust for life, with New York’s newest reigning cabaret queen…

No, I don’t usually post blog entries on the weekend - I deserve a bit of a break! - but I’m in New York, where it so grey, rainy and misty that I can’t even see the tops of the buildings of Midtown Manhattan from the 30th floor apartment I am staying at, so I feel (almost) at home. (Mind you, I treat New York as a home from home anyway, so I hardly need the weather comparisons to complete the circuit).

I’ve been cramming so much in here since I arrived on Friday afternoon that I am grabbing a moment, before heading to a jazz brunch in Harlem, then a Broadway matinee and then a Broadway opening night, to write about the final performance I caught last night of British cabaret and jazz singer Barb Jungr’s debut season at the Cafe Carlyle on the upper East Side, that is already unlikely to be beaten as the highlight of this trip.

Regular readers of this blog will already know that I have long been a fan of Barb’s work, ever since I saw and reviewed one of her shows in 2004 here in The Stage, of which I wrote then, “As I watched and listened with genuine, rapt awe, it dawned on me in one of those spine-tingling realisations that she might just be the best cabaret singer we have got in Britain today. It is to do with trust and communication, as much as it is with inherent musicality. There is a reason for her to be here and it is not just to sound pretty… In other words, she is communicating not just sound but spirit.”

In the years since, I have since her in theatres like the Almeida and jazz clubs like Pizza Express in Dean Street, and both home and abroad (at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in 2006). She has also been steadily building a loyal following in New York: a 2004 appearance at Mama Rose’s (now no more) was listed in Time Out New York’s listing of the Top Ten cabaret shows of that year, then last year she topped the entire list (ahead of Elaine Stritch and Chita Rivera) for same publication’s best of 2008, after her season in the Metropolitan Room.

Now she’s finally reached the apex of the cabaret world here, appearing at the city’s classiest (and most expensive) room, the Cafe Carlyle (where Barbara Cook and Stritch regularly appear), and it was just plain thrilling to see her becoming officially anointed as one of the reigning queens of New York cabaret. Her season has been getting raves all over town, once again heavily championed by Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman here. In the New York Times, Stephen Holden declared, “The CafĂ© Carlyle was the site of a small revolution on Wednesday evening with the sensational uptown debut of the English cabaret singer Barb Jungr. A performer of volcanic ebullience and good humor, Ms. Jungr is the antithesis of chic, a term that might be applied to many performers who have appeared there. There is nothing wrong with elegance, let me hasten to add. But Ms. Jungr’s ability to extract the primal essence of songs has nothing to do with high fashion or pricey real estate.”

Instead, he goes on, “Ms. Jungr is like the best teacher you ever had, the one whose enthusiasm for a subject instilled a lifelong passion for literature or music or art. For her, songs and songwriters from all over and from every era and genre are the thing. A performance, be it of a standard, a European art song or a punk-rock anthem, is a personal deconstruction that strips the material naked so that you see through any disguises; sometimes the undressing is so radical that at first you don’t recognize what is underneath.”

And that sense of openness, discovery and poignant, personal revelation that informs every one of her choices in this breathtaking programme made it the best I’ve ever seen from Barb. I’ve seen her often before, but most of what she did last night was entirely new; and that’s another outstanding feature of her work — the ability to constantly expand and broaden her always extraordinary eclectic repertoire.

It made the usually staid Cafe Carlyle literally rock last night; and it was thrilling to be there. At one time she used to support and tour with Julian Clary, who - she revealed in a Time Out New York interview last year - once called her a “one-woman emotional enema”; and last night she was flushing out the crusty associations that cabaret usually comes with in this room to reinvent the genre as the hippest experience in town.

Barb’s career is testament to the power of hard work and even harder experience: as Time Out New York reported in that interview, “In recent years she has borne the deaths of her father and two sisters—her beloved sister Carolyn died at the end of last year. ‘You know, I have to be careful what I say at the moment, I’m so raw,” she says, “but I’ve stood a lot of shit to be able to do what I do now. I’ve worked in bars, I’ve worked in restaurants, I have done all the shit things you have to do in order to be where I am now. That’s why every show counts—everything, every time counts. Maybe that’s the key to the songs: Every word is important, every note that is played counts’.”

Last night, she provided an evening that counts as one of the greatest of my cabaret going life.

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