Folk Club Bonn is rather akin to the Duracell Bunny. Running long after others might have given up all energy depleted, flat out horizontal with plush pink ears on the carpet. Friday’s Club was very much a case in point: Normal venue Haus Müllestumpe finds a wedding more profitable than a Folk Club, so bang goes the hall to play in for a month. Perhaps the Restaurant doesn’t realise how popular the Club has become? The participants are not just from ‘down the road’ toting guitars after a hard day at the office in Bonn- they book long in advance and come considerable distances to play here. So, hello to ‘Base Camp’ and Folk Club number 62 with it’s guests from Northern Ireland Fil Campbell and Tom McFarland.
That’s the background to how I found myself standing on a pleasantly warm October Friday in the campus of Base Camp Bonn, face to face with the life-size model of a cow, behind which are back ends of locomotives jutting from a brick wall. You can be sure that inside, the ‘makeshift’ venue for this evenings meet was going to be interesting to say the least.
I finally located John Harrison, in amongst Sixteen retro caravans, a train carriage complete with sleeping compartments, and a mini statue of THE Beethoven statue in Bonn City Centre. He was helping to set up rows of seats in what appeared to be a giant aircraft hangar (in fact was a former cosmetics warehouse). Behind John, Fil Campbell and husband Tom McFarland were tuning up.
Actually that was second surprise of the day. I had rather expected Fil Campbell to be Male and Scottish. It turns out that he is actually a dark curly haired she from the Fermanagh/Donegal border in Northern Ireland, Fil is actually a Philomena. A bit of research reveals Fil has been a busy member of the Northern Irish music scene for quite a while – an early success being as the first promoter to give U2 a gig in Northern Ireland (as support to Squeeze would you believe!). Anyone with the same first name as Phil Lynott’s mother has to be a bit special, so I was confident we were in for a cracking show.
Folk Club Bonn is of course used to setting up a video (Janero) and a recording desk (Mario), but on this occasion there were also lighting duties to carry out. A few changes here and there and we were, as they say, ready to Rock – or in our case, to Folk.
John’s initial ‘LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!’ actually came out as ‘ladies and gentlemen’ and it was obvious that caravans may be nice to sleep in but they are no sound barriers. As John’s words echoed gradually away on their long journey to the ceiling I hoped everyone playing tonight had a spare pair of lungs.
John Harrison did have a secret ‘noise’ weapon in his starting set in the bulky shape of a tuba wielded by Ge We Spiller which was appropriate, given the song’s title ‘Tuba Blues’ and the theme this evening of ‘Wind Instruments‘. It was followed up by ‘Harmonica Blues’ and here John made sure the audience could hear by going on a walk-about through the hall. From my distant vantage point on the high balcony John almost could have been Eric Clapton playing ‘Nobody knows you when you’re down and out’. Almost…
Petites Experiences were a trio spearheaded by the flute of Mary Krah whose soothing tones on ‘Petite Fleur’ were nicely underpinned by Ivo Janzik on guitar and GW Spiller’s tuba. Two tuba appearances in an evening made the Wind instruments’ theme just about legitimate – okay, and John’s Harmonica.
Oddly enough for a ‘Wind Instrument’ theme neither Fil Campbell or Tom McFarland were armed with anything that required deep exhalations of breath – unless you count singing in that, and certainly Fil was going to need deep inhalations indeed to make her sweet but light voice heard this evening.
Indeed, the opener ‘Back There’ showed immediately she was going to have a fight on her hands. Fil Campbell has a beautifully delicate voice but it’s clearly built for warmth and not for volume. It is a voice however that pulls in the listener, and, matched with first rate lyrics and a smooth backing from Tom, the lack of volume mattered less because everyone WANTED to hear – and how could you not be drawn into a beautiful song like ‘The Brightest Sky Blue’? If you bought the latest CD ‘Back There’ and are also a guitar player you may well find something to add to your own repertoire, I know I will be looking out the chords for ‘The brightest sky blue’ and ‘The White Beach’.
There’s a lack of the sing-a-long enthusiasm that usually makes Folk Club meets a shared experience this evening it seems. ‘As I Leave behind Nadine’ is a well known and popular melody that would be a sure-fire one for joining in at Haus Müllestumpe. Tom also breaks from his percussive duties to do some singing on ‘Come rain or come shine’ but his style is very much like Fil’s if a few keys lower. There are songs both old like ‘Farewell my own dear native land’ (1740’s) and new ‘This is Home’ (self-penned by Fil Campbell) that address wandering far from home and show that immigration was an emotional topic long before the current flood. Part one of the set was rounded off by a couple of traditional Gaelic songs: The fairytale ‘Seoladh na Ngamhna’ about a cattle driver who meets a Fairywoman out “looking for the calves” and ‘Si do Mhaimeo i’ (The Wealthy Widow). Both beautiful songs beautifully sung – but that delicate voice was in need of a break for sure.
So break we did, and by this time it was dark outside. Inside, amongst the caravans one could almost imagine sitting round a camp fire with guitars for the second half. That would have set off a few fire alarms though, and due to shops being closed tomorrow (Unification Day) many of the club regulars who play were probably at this moment standing around a check-out counter in queues at Edeka holding shopping baskets instead of guitars.
A sizeable proportion of the audience actually took the stage for part two. The Pisco Sour Folk Group built around John Hay is seven strong and thus ideally placed to make the necessary volume for an indoor camping place with a roof just this side of the Milky Way. If you’re allergic to smiles then don’t come near this band.
The same can be said for those with large hat allergies (I’m sure there is one, Chapeauphobia perhaps?). They draw heavily on the Buena Vista Social Club for their material so the meanings of the songs are as impenetrable as those of the Gaelic ones played by Fil and Tom. ‘Hasta Siempre, Comandante’ is apparently a Cuban Revolutionary Song so it’s probably full of blood thirsty lyrics and violence. Which is sort of at odds with those smiles – but then I was never a Cuban Revolutionary. I know nothing regarding‘Chan Chan’ and ‘Me Llaman Calle’ other than the latter is a Spanish Folk Fusion song – and I know nothing about Spanish Folk Fusion so check out the CD racks at ‘Mr Music’ for that genre if you dare! In short – unless you are The Wizard of Oz’ Tinman you cannot but have a smile on your face by the time Pisco Sour have returned to their row of seats.
When Fil Campbell and Tom McFarland come back for their second set I get the feeling they are happier too. Maybe the people queuing for CD’s at the interval had convinced them that not only could we hear them, we actually liked what we heard very much indeed.
‘It’s a weary life’ is a traditional number that has spawned a good few variations. Eric Bogle’s ‘Glasgow Lullaby’ or ‘Cilla Black’s ‘Liverpool Lullaby’ lean heavily on it for certain. Tom and Fil stick to the original this evening and seem to be a touch louder and more distinct than in the earlier set. They get even better with every song, from Tom’s singing the jolly ‘Let Mr Maguire Sit Down’ . The cautionary tale of a man who is always offered the chair by the fire when he’s courting only for the girl’s mother to quite literally change her tune when he’s married and spent all the money.
But it’s unsurprisingly the delicately sung ballads from Fil Campbell’s lips that have a power if not a volume that no Marshall stack of amps could better. Tommy Sands’ ‘Home Away from Home’ is poignant given the current arrival of immigrants in Germany telling as it does of welcoming someone with open arms who is, you guessed, ‘Home Away from Home’. My favourite of the evening has to be ‘The White Beach’ and it’s tale of passing on traditions and memories from one generation to the next mixed with environmental greed. Is there a heaven? If there is, this will be playing on the speakers in the reception room. A beautiful song, beautifully sung that I thought must be a traditional classic but is actually a Campbell/McFarland composition.
There was really nothing else you could add to an evening with magic like that in it. Well, there was of course one thing we HAD to add. Yes, that incorrigible friend and guardian of Bonn Folk Club ‘Jock Stewart’. The result was a frenzied search on cellphones for the lyrics (Detlev, who usually distributes them every session being on sick-leave this evening).
I have to say that one tuba, one harmonica and a flute made for a rather thin ‘Wind Instrument’ themed evening, but the songs and melodies delivered particularly by our special guests more than made up for it. Will there be further Folk Club’s from Base Camp? It was great to have room to move after 6.30 pm and it was great to be able to disappear off to the bar without disturbing anyone. What wasn’t so great sadly was the acoustics without any amplification, and any ‘meeting’ would be dependent on the agreement of those renting caravans – I can’t even guess what they made of it all.
On Facebook next day Fil Cambell posted a picture from the evening with the remark: “Without doubt one of the most bizarre venues we’ve ever played in”. On which grounds I think she will remember her visit as much as we will.
Finally, an interesting introduction to the music of Fil Campbell and Tom McFarland: