The theme this evening: Banjo. Cartoons come to mind of being sent to hell and Satan pointing to a cave filled with duelling banjo players. Also to mind was a surprising pleasant evening a few years ago at an international banjo festival in Bonn. I decided to focus on the latter and headed for Folk Club number 61 at Haus Müllestumpe.
The bad news was that pressures of work meant I got to the restaurant somewhat later than usual, the good news was that spaces were still to be found. It transpired that down by Alten Zoll Marion Preus and her popular band Antiquariat were playing in the open air – and a peek at Facebook the next day revealed quite a few posts from there rather than from Graurheindorf. Alten Zoll organizer Hans-Joachim Over apologised for this when I saw him at the weekend – but the smile on his face suggested he wasn’t actually sorry that his shows were proving so popular 😉
When things got started John Harrison had three of the ‘round guitars’ behind him, but was actually playing a guitar shaped guitar albeit made of steel for a fine and bluesy set that included ‘Police Dog Blues’ and some excellent harmonica work by Paulo Pacifico. “I only just told Paulo what I would be playing” winked John “but I’m sure he’ll be able to play along!” Of course he was right.
Give Mario Dompke credit, he actually did play a banjo, and pluckily (pun intended) assisted Steve Perry on mandolin with some numbers to get us in the mood. Or possibly a mandolin – I’m never sure what Steve is playing or how many strings it involves. ‘Cripple Creek’ sounded good though and when it came to playing ‘First you lose the rhyming, then you lose the timing’ they managed not to lose either – albeit aided by an audience in the mood for a sing-along.
Before we could proceed further a gentleman came in to check the radiator plumbing for the Autumn – hang on, the face is familiar from Folk Clubs past. Actually, the green dungarred gent had a banjo in his hand rather than a spanner and he used it too! Chris Biederwolf, with a dry humour, delivered a devastating set comprising ‘Maids when you’re young/Drowsy Maggie, Ernte Zeit, Texas and a song called simply ‘Tot’ (death) which he gaily announced as “This is a Blues song…”
So there we were, banjo’s firmly established and not sounding anything like I had feared. It seems as though it’s really a very enjoyable instrument – you just need someone who knows how to play it. Which brings me too…
Dan Walsh. Make a note of that name if you are a folk fan and wondering (worrying?) about the music’s future. Walsh is a mere 28 and could very well re-invent the instrument to a whole new generation. My visit to that International Banjo Festival mentioned earlier had taught me that there were actually two different forms of player: pickers and pluckers. “Which style are you?” I tried to impress Dan before the evening began with my knowledge. “Actually, I’m a clawhammer” he smiled.
What Dan didn’t let on to was that he isn’t just one of but has actually been described as “The UK’s finest clawhammer banjo player”. It didn’t take long though before I started to realise this fact. Hitting the ground firmly running the set kicked off, as does Dan’s excellent new CD, with ‘Time to stay’ which is an up-tempo, bluesy stormer. All about the wonders of coming home – to Stafford, England. “Probably the only song ever inspired by Stafford” he suggested. Well it made me want to pack my bags and go – especially that line announcing “I can’t wait, to go to my local every day”. As a Brit who enjoys a first evening back in the ‘old Country’ with a pint at the local I am with you all the way Dan!
There was a flurry of traditional tunes (‘Banish Misfortune’, ‘Washington’s March, Swallow’s Tail’) to prove Walsh can play the old ‘uns as good as the best but again it was the self-penned numbers that showed his inventiveness. ‘With a memory like mine’ is a bitter anti-war song telling the tale of bidding farewell on a train platform to a son going to war and seeing him return to that platform a year later in a casket. The voice is one more of anger than of grief – as powerfully sung as it is perfectly played. I really didn’t want the break to come at the club with Dan Walsh in this sort of form.
Slack Bird from Finland describes himself thus on Facebook: “One guy with a banjo and sometimes even more people with a bunch of other noisy thingies”. Today he was a duo however, but how would a man/band describing their music as ‘Anti-Folk’ get on in a Folk Club? Very well indeed it proved, and actually this was not Slack Bird’s first visit.
You know things will be a little different when the equipment includes a box of Chequers, and it makes an excellent percussion instrument for a band playing Punk-Folk I guess. It was also the first time a band started late for the lack of an elastic band to attach a bell to the singers foot. That beats having a broken string for style in my book.
Musically Slack bird is/are something of a whirlwind. Very often singing excitedly in Finnish “What? You guys don’t speak Finnish?!” exclaims Dave Kras (alias Slack Bird). The music comes slick and fast in english too ably supported by ‘the band’ which tonight is a gentleman wearing a washboard for a tie and going by the unlikely name of ‘Life-long Hangover’. Think a punked up Seasick Steve singing words you can’t understand and you have Slack Bird. I rather liked them – even if they did play the entire set the wrong side of the meagre ceiling lights and reduced my picture taking to iso 3200 and heavy duty grain. Folk-punk concert photography indeed!
A break from furious banjo came in the gentle acoustic guitar of Sebastian Landwehr whose perfect picking reminded me of how badly I play in comparison. Gentle on the ear and the soul. A further gentle break came in a poem read by Dieter Faring. Then it was back to the cutting edge of satire courtesy of Gerd Schinkel.
Listening to Gerd tear once more into the political heartland of Germany with his cutting tales on six string I looked over at the audience and was surprised to see that Dan Walsh was still there. Just maybe…
Luck was very much in. Dan was back, and on killer form from the off once again with his own composition, the spirited ‘Lost Rambler’ and it was duly followed up with Dolly Parton’s ‘Gonna sleep with one eye open’ after which he announced a love for the sounds of Indian music. Little did we know what would follow. I can tell you that what did follow Dan playing his own composition ‘Whiplash Reel’ was the longest round of applause I have yet witnessed at Bonn Folk Club, and even today I rub my fevered brow just imagining how he managed to play such an amazing composition in Indian musical scale on a banjo. Yes indeed, the humble banjo gets less ‘humble’ every time I get the chance to hear it – but quite possibly that’s down to my hearing it on Friday from one of the VERY best.
Every so often (and ever so rarely) you hear someone who takes the music out of it’s box and puts it in a very different one. Should Dan Walsh turn up on a concert poster near you don’t be scared off by the ‘round guitar’ in his hand. It’s a banjo, and Dan knows how to use it.
Finally, a sample of Dan Walsh’s talents…