For those of you who have never experienced Simon Wahl’s music, suffice to say he enjoys an almost unrivalled fluency on the acoustic guitar. John Harrison was in Schweinheim’s Katharinenhof recently to lend an ear and a report for 3SongsBonn.
Interestingly, although they are so different in many other ways, Simon has at least four important things in common with the British guitarist Jeff Beck. They are both excellent original guitarists, neither of them use plectrums or picks, preferring the direct contact of their right hand fingertips to the guitar strings and both men seem to be fundamentally better hard wired than mere “normal” guitarists. It’s as if the pair of them tap into a sort of spiritual energy source which allows them both to transfer their wildest original musical thoughts and dreams effortlessly, and seemingly without further thought or ado, into some of the most beautiful music which has ever come out of a guitar. Was there a fourth similarity? ah yes, neither of them sing!
Ode To Joy in Schweinheim Friday 31.05.2014
Simon is playing at the Katharinenhof as part of an arts festival known as “Wildeaustern” (Wild oysters) which features paintings and sculptures by several local artists and is interspersed with evenings of live music of which Simon’s concert this evening is one. The performance takes place in a large, high-ceilinged, renovated and whitewashed barn on this property. Katharinenhof, itself the residence of the cabaret artist Konrad Beikircher and his family is a delightful tranquil rural retreat. Although only a few hundred yards from the fairly busy road which leads to Bad Godesberg’s Waldkrankenhaus (the hospital in the woods), which is flanked by very neat suburban dwellings and extremely tidy gardens, the entrance to this charmed country idyll is heralded by uncut meadows, a herd of rare breed goats and a long row of bee hives. Although I have travelled the main road many times before, indeed my daughter was born in the Waldkrankenhaus, I’d never before been to the Katharinenhof and it’s like entering another world.
When Simon begins playing, this other world becomes also musically enchanted, as he encourages us to “Take It Easy”. Capo on the second fret and he’s bending the B string like a good ‘un, like a Blueser. This is an up tempo free flowing number with the, for Simon so typical, percussive interludes on the body of the guitar, and like most of the numbers this evening written by Simon itself. Simon would be incredible just for his guitar playing skills alone at the tender age of 24, but he also composes the majority of the tunes he performs and they are a perfect counterpoint to his guitar talent. “Fernweh” (Wanderlust) the title song of his EP which came out at the end of 2013 follows and then comes his next tune “Am Rhein” which is one of his earliest songs from his album aptly entitled “A Language Called Music” and is a gentle melodic dedication to father Rhine, the long powerful dark flowing river of his childhood in Bonn on its east bank. “Hoffnung” (Hope) is another of his early ones, which he wrote whilst (amazingly) still a teenager and melodically invokes just what it says it is. Already, even then, he was incorporating his skills with harmonics on the guitar into his compositions in such a wonderful way. The classic “Blue Moon” is delightful and with the Australian Kieran Murphy’s (another young acoustic guitar wizard) composition “Bootleg Escapade” the first half is brought to a fitting and bustling end.
During the break there is an opportunity for the captivated audience to view the “Wildeaustern” exhibits and the sculptures in the wonderful meadow at the back of the property bordering on the forest.
With his capo right up high on the seventh fret Simon treats us to a Beatles medley opening it with George Harrison’s “Here Comes The Sun”. Simon has a quick release capo and there’s not much point having one if you never use it, right? At the end of the first tune he flips it off, deftly catching it and without missing a beat, continues capo-less into another one of George’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” now with powerful thundering open bass strings and then “All You Need Is Love” followed by the most melancholy and haunting “Eleanor Rigby” in E minor.
Why are so many of my favourite songs, as both a performer and a listener, in the key of E minor? The latter Beatles’ song has been in Simon’s repertoire for a long time but the idea for the Beatles medley came to him as he was listening to John Lennon whilst travelling up to Bonn on the train from Linz in Austria where he now lives and studies.
Simon’s certainly in medly mood tonight and launches into a second one with his capo on the second fret and combines a fast moving Boom Chuck* number “Luttrell” by yet another Australian fingerstyle guitar wizard Tony Emmanuel seamlessly with his own composition “Lovely Day In Cologne”. Simon’s penchant for Australian instrumental guitarists this evening also extends to guitars and the guitar he is playing is an Australian made Maton
EBG808c guitar with Elixir strings, from a family company founded by pioneering Australian luthier Bill May in 1946 ** It certainly sounds good, even though it is moderately amplified by a Schertler Giulia to fill the barn. I suspect though it’s possibly due to the way he plays it, and I have no doubt whatsoever that he could make any guitar sound good! Kieran Murphy is actually an understudy of Tony Emmanuel and the pair of them also play Maton guitars. Australia certainy rules in a small village called “Schweinheim / Swine home” in a small town, Bad Godesberg, within another small city, Bonn, tonight!
As he’s playing in Bonn, Simon’s mother and father are also in the audience tonight and Simon’s next song is one he penned for his own mother as a Mother’s Day present in 2007, when I guess Simon would have been only 17! It’s in standard tuning, with a capo on the second fret, and is an exquisite slow, soft lilting ballad. To have her own son compose such a beautiful tune as “Chanson Pour Mamon” especially for her, must be the dream of any mother. At the end of this song he plays the melody entirely using harmonics with such wonderful dexterity and tender feeling. Simon is a king of the harmonics but to listen to this with Simon playing in my left ear and a blackbird mimicking with it’s own song through the open door of the barn in my right ear was double bliss. We surely all have a lot to thank Simon’s mother for!
“Sangria”, again self penned, from his new EP “Fernweh” is a very lively Spanish style piece with heavy melodic percussion in it and what almost sounds like a drum solo in the middle! Yes, Simon’s percussion work on the body of the guitar is really that good.
The third and final medley of the evening is Simon’s now famous Enimem Hip Hop medley featuring tunes from the US Rapper. Tuning the bass E strings down a few tones gives it a percussive snare drum effect in “Like Toy Soldiers”, then he tunes it back up again in mid song for Without Me” , “Slim Shady” and finally closes with “Cleaning Out My Closet”.
“Auf Geht’s” with its glistening melodious harmonic beginnings and funky riffs and a few bars of “Smoke on the water” as a teaser tucked away in the middle, is his final number and Simon is indeed off to catch the train to his new Austrian home in Linz, where he is due to perform all of the following afternoon at a town festival. Although he’s in a bit of a hurry he does throw us one more gem with another of his own tunes “I Can’t Stop” with his trademark percussion as an apt encore to a delightful musical evening.
To attend a concert by Simon Wahl is a “pleasure for the soul” it says on his newly revamped website *** and I’m certainly not even going to begin to argue with that. Catch him if you can, especially if you play the guitar yourselves, it will certainly expand and extend the perimeter walls in your mind of what this instrument is truly capable of in the right hands.
Simon, like Jeff Beck, doesn’t do words, he doesn’t have to, he’s simply so good. I remember Simon’s performance at Folk Club Bonn in July last year, which thankfully was coincidentally also the same evening that we began to make video documents with the help of Janero Del Rosario. Simon Wahl was, being a very quiet fingerpicking guitarist, without the support of booming vocals, more than a little sceptic about performing in front of such a large audience totally unplugged. Before his penultimate song that evening he said beaming “Ich brauche doch kein Verstärker! / I really don’t need an amplifier!” Before his last song on that evening I spontaneously replied, “We have often had many different and many gifted and talented musicians play at the Folk Club Bonn, but I don’t think we’ve had one quite as young as you, who is as good as you, and also so humble as you are.” For that we probably also have to thank “Moman” and Pater.
Nothing has really changed, except that Simon is almost a year older now and plays even better than my last live recollection, and is continually even more inspired than then. Long may this be so, and long may not just nightingales or blackbirds sing!