FCB (Folk Club Bonn) number 43 and even now I have no idea how the evening will play out. Therein of course lies a great part of the magic. This particular FCB though had something weighing heavily in its favour before it had even started – a very special musical guest named Simon Kempston.
So where was everyone? It was a quarter past six and with a 7pm start I was surrounded by several rows of empty tables and a couple at the corner table finishing their post dinner espressos. When someone did finally turn up with a guitar it was a stranger who asked me with concern if this was the right place for the Bonn Folk Club. I almost felt inclined to go back out the door and check that there was a sign saying Haus Müllestumpe. It was with some relief that I saw John Harrison walk in the door with our special guest this evening. All we needed now was an audience.
…and, rather like English buses, when the people did arrive they seemed to do so all at once. If the couple in the corner stayed for the show I couldn’t say since there were suddenly too many heads between me and the corner table. If they didn’t then all fool them – they missed a belter of an evening.
Mindful I suspect of Simon’s heritage John Harrison kicked things off with a varied assortment of Scottish music. Beginning with a cappella rendition of a song by Belle Stewart, a top Scottish singer/songwriter of the 60’s and 70’s: ‘The Berry Fields of Blair’ . Fruitpicking in Perthshire sounds idyllic although a closer look at the lyric sheet reveals: “For there’s some that bless and some that curse, the berry fields of Blair!”. Next up was the tale of Albert Mactavish and his ‘Brand New Frigidaire’ which was a jolly ditty except that the Frigidaire didn’t work. The next one up wasn’t any less serious either. Robert Burns apparently kept quiet about writing ‘Such a parcel of rogues in a Nation’ : It decries the band of Scotsmen that signed Scotland up to Union with England in 1707. (Burns was working in Excise in London with the government hence his keenness for anonymity at the time).
On the subject of anonymity I now discovered that the young gentlemen with the guitar and the question as to this being where the Folk Club was had the name Philipp Grimm, came from Düsseldorf, and was the next floorspot. He made for a confident impression with cloth cap on head and a couple of self-penned numbers that suggested he will also be a welcome guest in future. At least he now knows where the Folk Club is even when it looks deserted.
Another young gentleman new to the Folk Club also made a good impression with his own material – Olli Bud is the name on my notes and he delivered some relaxing melodies and thoughtful lyrics that, like Philip Grimm, suggested Jock Stewart is going to find himself going thirsty if all this talent gets its deserved attention.
Having dealt with the weight of three hundred years history via John Harrison, the lightness of songs from Kenny Legendre was very much appreciated even though he hit the ground running with a political number ‘21st Century Fixin’ to Die Rag – (Afghanistan)’ based on the classic anti-war song by Country Joe and the Fish about Vietnam. It was followed by a return to songs about Scotland but a little less seriously with a song about ”Pink Sheep’ and a banjo. It quickly became clear that Mr Legendre was a bit special as a guest musician. I particularly enjoyed his very witty song about the perils of Internet friendships named, rather provocatively ‘Heidi Hottmehl’. If you wish to know more about Kenny (aka Majiken – or ‘Magic Ken’) then check him out on Google as I did. An album is available there that was mastered by Jean Roussel a keyboard player for such luminaries as Cat Stevens and Bob Marley. I hope John got Kens Email address for a future main guest slot – preferably not via a woman named Heidi.
Gerd Schweizer was back again with a couple of pearls from Rheinhard May. ‘Zeugnistag’ and ‘Aber dein Ruhe findest du nicht mehr’. When I ask Gerd why he is so drawn to Mays songs his answer is the best one: “Because when I hear his words they could almost be my own. He put’s my own experiences into perfect words” It’s something that I thought a lot about when Simon Kempston was playing – as I will recall later in the review, but not before I give a mention to Jutta, Steve and the Band of Verstaubte (dusty) Intrumenten who played some enjoyable Winter melodies but curiously enough for a band whose name emphasizes instruments had their finest five minutes in a glorious spoken rendition of Loriot’s Xmax poem ‘Advent’ whose black humour is to my ears very un-Germanic and all the more powerfully humorous for it.
Which brings me to Special Guest Simon Kempston. I was fortunate enough to meet Simon the week before his appearance where I’d mentioned that one of my favourite Bluesrock bands of the moment is Glasgow’s King King with a kilted front man in the shape of Alan Nimmo. Would Simon be wearing a kilt on Friday? I asked him. We struck an agreement that if my girlfriend came to the show then the family kilt would be worn – and thus was Simon the first kilted musician at Folk Club.
This was Simon’s third appearance in Bonn and if there was a top ten of performances over the 43 evenings then all three would be in there at or near the top. He’s a quiet unassuming man away from the spotlight and oddly enough a quiet unassuming man IN the spotlight too. Except that he manages to command attention somehow. There’s a way he has of slightly increasing the volume of his between song monologues that ensures you keep your ears pinned to his stories – and super stories they are too. The old drunk from Nairn who took Simon on a drinking spree and unwittingly supplied his musicians notebook with the material for a song that makes the listener wish he’d been on the same daylong pub crawl – witty but never deprecating. Or ‘Leipzig Frost’ that stems from an arguing couple overheard by Simon in the City of that name. “I couldn’t understand a word of their argument” he explained”:
“The cold stone, I feel your cold lips. We’re both frozen to our fingertips”.
Sad, melancholy and compelling.
Simon shuffles back and forth as he plays and I wonder if he is even aware of it. As if these are fresh observations that he’s anxious to get out to us rather than lyrics already committed to time and silver disc. John’s earlier songs about Scottish Home Rule and it’s renunciation in 1707 are a sticky point for Simon. He’s hoping for Home Rule in next years Scottish elections and there is always a fierce pride when Scotland is the topic. ‘The Bleeding Man’ is an old but firm number in his repertoire. For me Simon’s at his finest though when he recalls real people in a way that also makes them real to the listener. The drinker from Nairn, or the gambler that “accrued a vicious debt, leaving a wife and a family, empty and bereft” from ‘I’ll never say I told you so’. Most of all with my favourite of the evening ‘The dust and the paint’ which recalls a much loved record shop and it’s owner that were both brushed away by time and economics into memories:
“I walk past now, it’s just another row of flats. Emotionless homes filled with meaningless tat. They can take the bricks and the stone, but not the memories. They are mine and mine alone’
Maybe it was a favourite for me because I remember just such a shop from my own Portsmouth past. But that’s Simon’s magic. England, Scotland, Germany, people are people and feelings are universal. We can all see what Simon Kempston sees every day of our lives, but it takes a special talent to put those images into words, and those words into emotions – to make us care about people we never have and never will meet.
Did I mention Simon is also a glorious finger-style guitarist? John Harrison could give you the technicalities of it all – the DADGAD tunings… I’m happy enough though just to enjoy the gentle embellishments. I can’t imagine Simon playing with amplification – it would seem too brutal against his gentle voice.
Another full evening at haus Müllestumpe then that barely left time for Jock Stewart. Understandably though – Simon Kempston is a man you don’t hear every day