John Harrison on December at the Folk Club

FC2There were 31 Folk Clubs prior to the one on Friday, and every one of them was different from the last.  Meet 32 was no exception as the best one can expect is the unexpected.  Certain only was that Simon  Kempston would be playing as special guest – except that it was snowing hard, and if Simon managed to make it, would there be an audience to see him?

Simon Kempston is a young version (he’s recently turned thirty) of a troubadour steeped in that very old tradition, where “paying one’s dues” and “billed out and bound to go” are hewn firmly into the psyche of a performing  poet-singer.  Simon was only coming from Scotland via Holland, I knew deep down he’d be there, and although there was some attrition of our local floor singers travelling from outlying areas, in fact well over half of our record breaking November audience braved the elements and were rewarded with one of the best musical nights of the year.

The snow was settling into it’s deep, crisp and even variety as we assembled the bar stools, plural.  Pleas for help in finding a stool for the performers to use instead of the, for guitar playing uncomfortable and for audience viewing and listening unfriendly, normal chair meant we had not one or two, but three bar stools to try out. Two were on loan from the homes of folk club organisers, but special thanks to Ulf Breuer, the now retired proprietor of the GoVinum wine bar in Bad Godesberg, which hosted many a wonderful live acoustic music evening with musicians who had first trodden the boards in Graurheindorf, for gifting one bar stool “of our own” to the folk club. It was only Ulf’s second visit to the folk club as a Friday night is never a landlord’s night out, but on this particular evening he was gifted with a ringside seat in front of one of Scotland’s finest, a man who sometimes “goes missing”, but a man who never fails to beguile and enchant his audience.

We also had another ‘try out’ for the evening:  A raffle.  Now of course this is a staple of the average British folk club – but Bonn is not your average folk club (it’s the wrong side of the English Channel for a start) and being Anglo-American fathered and located in a small town in Germany it is, by its very nature much more international in both its musical repertoire and its general outlook. Despite holding many “Singers’ Nights” for the benefit of local singers and musicians we have staged evenings in 2012 with “Special Guests” from half a dozen different countries. The folk club has consistently offered a monthly evening of increasingly diverse variety and increasingly good musical content, whilst never demanding an entrance fee. Long may this continue, and this may indeed be one of the prime reasons that the age span of an average folk club audience, and sometimes even its performers too, is often greater than “three score years and ten” which is seventy years, which was traditionally the average life expectancy of a man, in more ancient times. The folk club is driven by the delicate, yet powerful, force of diverse live acoustic music performed and listened to in a convivial intimate atmosphere. The social fabric healing qualities for society in general of a folk club were certainly not initially forseen by its instigators , but are a most pleasant side effect, from which ever aspect of modern society they are observed.

The bottom line is that the folk club in Bonn is a very strange modern anomaly. It receives no public money from the state or elsewhere, it is reliant on an awful lot of altruistic effort from the organisers and resident singers, who ensure that it not only continues, but also flourishes. The current, most venerable, venue kindly provides free water for our singers and also pay the folk club’s monthly GEMA fees of a little over € 20 per month net of V.A.T. which allows us the legal right to perform. . Mainly many songs which are so good and so traditional that they have either, long lost their copyright expiry dates or are actually being directly performed by their own writers during the course of a folk club evening. The venue serves the drinks and vittles and retains the profits from these sales. The most “British” aspect of the Bonn folk club is that we offer our many contributing singers and musicians only Churchillian “blood, sweat and tears” Our dear old landlady at the “Gaststätte zum Schützenhaus” Monika , was a lady in the good old fashioned sense and understood this. It is a common courtesy to proffer singers and musicians refreshment. This “joy and task” now falls to the folk club organisers to share as a courtesy, and is in addition to all the time and effort that they voluntarily spend in making the folk club a most pleasant venue, hopefully, for both performer and  listener.

It is not a crime to buy performers at the folk club a drink, and tell them that you enjoyed their performance. In most venues, this gratitude would be superfluous, as they would be enjoying this benefit as a “right” and the venue would provide free drinks. In the folk club in Bonn the performers will be thirsty and be will normally be most thankful for a drink. It will restore their faith in humanity and their necessary confidence in themselves as performers. However. if a performer refuses a drink because they are driving, as most will probably be, please don’t force them to take an alcoholic drink out of “courtesy”, after all “it’s the thought that counts” and we would love to see both them and you again.

Do buy their CDs, often it will be original material that you will seldom hear anywhere else, more often than not, it will be good, because they have the gaul to perform in front of you live, and if it’s not good, you don’t have to buy it. Chances are it will be good, play it to your friends and family, or gift it to them in some way.

A raffle helps the folk club to highlight the CDs of our special guests, and the reason that they are guests is that they are “special” to us who arrange the folk club. It’s also a lot of good simple fun and there will be current CDs of our special guest musicians and a couple of bottles of wine. There will always be the “booby prize” of a free entrance to the next folk club, which will in future, also include the transferrable “ right “ ,but not necessarily the duty to play a floor spot and also the “right” but not the “duty” to perform the opening “Ladies and Gentleman” ceremony introduction at the beginning of the folk club evening. So a raffle is not only a “whole lot of fun” but it allows the folk club organisers to merely donate their own free time and talents to the benefit of the folk club, without having to pay so much for the priviledge as we have invariably done in the past.

‘Snow be damned!’.  Come twenty past seven and Folk Club Number #32 is off and running.

What does one play to introduce an evening in the most international European folk club in Germany with a Scottish special guest, especially one with the rare distinction and calibre of a certain Simon Kempston? I chose to leave instruments aside for the first one and sing a typically Scottish a cappella song from the great wealth of songs which came from the Stewart family songbook. “The Berry Fields of Blair” have nothing to do at all with Tony Blair, but everything to do with the town of Blairgowrie in Perthshire. This town lives from its commercial berries and its railway connection on the main north south route enabling it to pick strawberries and raspberries which were magicked overnight, since the 19th Century by railroads returning from the “milk run”, to the wholesale markets of Covent Garden, in London. It is a song which epitomises the life of a traveller and was written by Belle Stewart for her family as an attraction to the Hogmany/ New Years’ party in the middle of the last century. One would follow that with a dropped D instrumental about a wee man called Albert McTavish who journeyed to Edinburgh to buy a brand new fridgidaire in order to save his newly betrothed marriage to “Beryl the welder” and probably, tears in eyes transfer to the piano to play an old Am Blues about “St James’s Infirmary” with a D harp in a rack and then end up with an open G song on the faithfull old Guild guitar about a man called “Mr Solitaire”.

Colombian born Alvaro Arango was back again for two self penned numbers.  The first ‘mama you’ve been on my mind’ had a touch of the Dylanesque to it’s style – and it’s always reassuring to find that young singer/songwriters are still finding inspiration from Bob Dylan just as young Blues players still tread gratefully in the footsteps of Robert Johnson.  The second was equally gentle, and so new that it hadn’t even been christened with a name yet.  Alvaro has a very introspective style of delivery and quiet confidence about his music so I was surprised to discover that he is also guitarist with an electric Progressive Pop band  (they actually label their style ‘Fuzzy Prock!) named Three Oiva.

Sabine Hellmann also has a gentle voice and touch on her guitar as proved by her version of ‘Heard it through the Grapevine’ and particularly  a number I believe was titled ‘One thing in a single day’.


Special guest for the evening was Dundee born Simon Kempston.  The list of people that Simon has shared the bill with is huge and impressive: Robert Cray, Martin Simpson and Dave Swarbrick are just three names to impress.   He has also performed live on BBC Radio Stations across the UK so Simon’s appearance is certainly proof that Bonn Folk Club has a growing reputation abroad – as he rather kindly explained on his Facebook blog: “Looking forward to catching up with old friends and performing at the Bonn Folk Club this evening – the city looks stunning in the snow”.  The music of Simon Kempston is also rather stunning often drawing on politicized lyrics that cut across delicate and often intricate finger picking;  throughout his performance Simon paces back and forth as if to emphasize the impact of messages within his texts that his soft Scottish accent threatens to reduce, as on ‘My Tattered Uniform’ and the eternal soldiers dilemma of being caught between Conscience and Duty: “How can history make too harsh a judgement?  On a man who followed orders wherever he was sent”.

The cover of Simons 2009 release ‘Carefree Prisoner’ shows a captive man with a gun pointed to his head.  It’s a stark image and an indication of the seriousness of the lyrics that run alongside the intricate melodies.  In the same way, Simons joking between songs banter  counterweights the serious topics coming:  “I wanted an electric guitar but me Mum bought me an acoustic and made me play that instead”  Simon recounts.  “Now, all these years after making me play folk guitar, she complains that I don’t have a ‘proper’ job.  You can never please women…not mothers anyway!”  he laughs, and then launches into ‘Barricade’ a tale from ‘Carefree Prisoner’ about the freeing of Estonia.

Not that the entire evening was politics, or even deadly serious for that matter.  Steve and Jörg Bohnsack donned Santa hats for ‘Grandma got run over by a reindeer’ and Steve recounted the bloody but  funny story of the ‘Martins & the Coys’.  Along the way too we had a debut from Emily with her father Barry.  The former displayed a wonderful pure and relaxing voice and the latter displayed a ‘Blue Peter’ ability to make music out of anything to hand – utilising a wheatbeer glass, a china mug a mineral water bottle and what looked like a breadstick, but could have been a chopstick (but probably wasn’t!) to great rhythmic effect.

On this particular evening we had, not one but suddenly two “special guests” . A first from Emily, an offspring of a most  “musical household” . Such a household must be a breeding ground for many things. It’s certainly not always a rose garden, but there are rare moments when lesions heal and genious thrives. David Roshto has already shown us in the folk club how imagination and musical dexterity can cover cracks and inspire both peers and other generations. He may well become a jazz pianist of note. His mother can take all twelve notes and compress them on her violin to the four sweet letters of love. Barry, a media artist, a very good friend, an amazing pianist, a musician, a composer, a philosopher, a great singer, and despite being a failed republican, the most royal person you could ever wish to meet.


When I was a little bit younger than I am now, I audaciously asked Barry a question, “where are our children going to play Barry?”

That was probably one of the best questions I ever asked anybody.

Emily, his daughter,  presented Barry with a set of songs he’d never heard before. “That’s goood”

„Down“ by Jason Walker was the somewhat hesitant first song, but by „Wake me up, when September ends“ from Green Day  Emily was in her stride and her voice was up and running. Her father initially featuring heavily on the piano but was now in a minor supporting rôle as „I Follow Rivers“ from Lykke Li showed us which way the modern musical flow was leading us, before a well deserved encore in the form of „Shake up the Happiness“ from “Train” convinced us all that fathers can also learn from their daughters.  The folk club hopes to hear you playing and singing again soon Emily!

Following the tradition of all Folk Clubs we held a spot open for anyone ‘walking in’ on the night, and despite the atrocious weather someone did walk in, with an accordion,Adam was his name, which, if I recollect was a first in in its own day, certainly in a biblical way.

All this wonderful music and a raffle too! What more could you want from a Friday evening after a hard week of work?   An evening unlike any other at Bonn Folk Club – but at the same time,  in it’s  spontaneity, reassuringly like Folk Clubs past.  Many thanks to all who contributed and especial thanks to special guest Simon Kempston for another most  memorable evening.

So what a year it has been dear diary, 32 folk club meetings and somewhere recently it was Barry’s “celebration of choice “ as Blog runner to celebrate 4-8-16-32-64-128-256-512 instead of boring
1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 as 32 was very briefly “in sync “ around 32k hits. It’s currently well over 35k .

It’s out of sync again, but in a most positive way.

What a wonderful evening indeed, to be able to welcome a most seasoned and acomplished, yet young artist such as Simon Kempston performing all his own songs with such dextrous guitar picking, and a young Emily almost half his age singing her heart out.

Such is the stuff that folk club dreams are made of.

–  John Harrison

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