Parting is such sweet sorrow – except when it’s the theme of Bonn Folk Club meeting number 64. Then it’s a chance for who knows what to happen. Well maybe Master of Ceremonies John Harrison knows what, most of the time at least. All that could be certain was that special guest Simon Kempston would be a success – If he arrived in time that is…
Sheffield is many things. It’s the once mighty home of the British steel industry, it boasts two professional football clubs and (says Wikipedia) Sheffield has more trees per person than any other city in Europe. One thing it is not however is a suburb of Bonn, which is why Simon Kempston had been on the road most of the time on Friday. So busy in fact that he’d forgotten his kilt. Well, to clarify, he was on the road wearing trousers. On the road because Simon, bless him, loves playing at Bonn Folk Club and has done so often.
Not as often as John Harrison of course. Not to beat around the bush or do things by halves, John kick-starts the evenings theme of separation (Trennung) with a major tragedy of the 60’s – Aberfan’s mining disaster. Alex Glasgow, a pitman’s son from Gateshead, wrote ‘Close the coalhouse door’ originally for a BBC radio programme pre-Aberfan but added a verse about ‘bairns’ (children) dying after the disaster in which a school was tragically buried when the coalface collapsed. I’m not sure where the ‘trennung’ fits in with John’s second choice – ‘World turned upside down’ about Winstanley’s Leveller movement in the 17th Century, but certainly it was a thoughtprovoking way to start the evening off – at least the third number, Leadbelly’s ‘Goodnight Irene’ was a bonafide song of separation, and one we could all sing along to as well, which helped us forget about those poor bairns for a while at least.
The mood even got quite jolly with a marvellous rendition of the Christmas story in ‘a foreign language that most of you might know’ as Gert Müller put it: Bönnsch. It was actually funny, and even the bits (lots?) I didn’t understand sounded funny. In fact everyone seemed to be laughing. I wondered if maybe this was a case of ‘the Kings new clothes’ and nobody wanting to admit they didn’t understand the half of it.
Back to more serious matters with Gerd Schinkel who is of course no stranger to finding words that most of us search for in vain when major social/political issues occur. The sad waltz rhythm of ‘Paris’ heralding Gerd’s thoughtful lyrics and the belief that “What helps a little is music, to relieve some of the pain”. Very much a song about loss but also a song about hope – that the indomitable free spirit of Paris will prevail. Thoughtful, powerful and on topic. Thanks Gerd.
I know only about the next act that they were a duo (I counted them!) and their names were Emi and Noah. As Noah sat down at the piano I thought that Emi introduced a song by Verdi. I didn’t recognize the song as something out of Aida though and it seemed rather un-operatic. It turned out she had said not ‘Verdi’ but ‘Birdy’, who is a talented young lady from Lymington with excellent piano skills learnt no doubt from her classical piano playing mother. A little nervous perhaps, but Emi was singing in a key that I would not want to take a swing at, and all in all both ‘Skinny Love’ and ‘People’ were very palatable indeed. An especial word of commendation here goes to Noah, who despite the name was also a relative youngster and coaxed beautiful melodies out of the old upright piano that, had it been translucent, would I’m sure have glowed in happiness at being asked to come up with these melodies.
Christian Schuster had a bit of trouble finding the key and getting the tuning spot on but made it all worthwhile when he did get down to playing. I was glad to be sitting on his right hand side and able to enjoy the sound of his gentle finger picking on tracks like Passenger’s ‘Let her go home’.
Time for the main act of the evening, and I’m relieved to glance across at the bar to see Simon Kempston is sitting in front of it, with a look one part tired and one part relief at having made it to Haus Mullestümpe. My favourite songs from Simon are ‘Bus to Nairn’ and ‘Dust and the Paint’, neither of which got a play this evening. But did I miss them? Well, just a little perhaps, but Simon has a brand new CD out and, like most long-serving musicians, the number of excellent songs to choose from gets longer. Oldies but goodies and newies that were alo goodies was order of Simon’s evening. ‘Ladies Lookout’ from 2009’s ‘Carefree Prisoner’ was certainly in the former category whilst ‘You and I must remember them’ was the perfect example of the latter category and also fitting for a theme of parting:
“I like it best when the roses are in bloom.
A sense of grandeur transcends the gloom.
I study the writing etched on the monument,
Try and put faces to the names of people I’ve met.”
There are of course a couple of jigs to liven things up and Simon even manages a couple of ‘whoops!’ mid song despite the initial tiredness in his eyes. By the break though both he and audience are very much awake and enjoying a pleasant Winters evening of music and song.
The ensemble Mikado filled up the ‘stage’ after so many duos and single acts. Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and the Everly’s with tuba, violin and occasional banjo. Songs of parting? They don’t get more clear-cut than singing ‘Bye bye love’ do they?
Uta and Mario brought us back to the duo format and with songs from German Folksinger Erich Schmeckenbecker: ‘Ein Stolzes Schiff’ and ‘Andre, die das Land so sehr nicht liebten’ The latters original text is from Theodor Kramer, an Austrian Jew who fled to London during the 2nd World War and was reluctant to later return. It’s lyrics though have a curious resonance with the current wave of immigrants and the complicated feelings many must have for their ‘lost’ homelands:
“Andre, who didn’t love his Country so much, was ready to leave from the start. Saying ‘Many have already left – it’s better’
Myself – I have to cut deep with my own knife to free my roots from this earth”
Though provoking stuff really, and proof of the interesting stories that lay beneath many a song sung/played at Bonn Folk Club (and make these reviews both harder and more rewarding than the average ‘He/she/they played hit A, B, and C…
Space to go into the lyrics of many a Simon Kempston song would explode this review. He delves heavily into the slings and arrows thrown over the centuries at his beloved Scotland, despite making frequent jokes about his home being the Cottbus of Scotland (actually he asked which City should be referred to as Germany’s worst and got a vote of sorts for Düsseldorf, but dear readers from that fair City, please forget I said that).
‘The Last Car’ is not just the title of Simon’s latest CD, but also a condemnation of Maggie Thatcher. It tells of the closure of the Rootes car plant under Chrysler and at the Iron Lady’s hands in Scotland’s Linwood and it’s economic implications. Springsteen had his ‘Pink Cadillac’ to sing about and Kempston his Hillman Imp from Linwood. Cars and coal have both been alluded to this evening and both have created and destroyed towns and livelihoods in their time.
The subject of creating towns is only the start of course. But how to make them beautiful to live in? In Dundee, James Thomson was referred to as creator of innumerable schemes to make Dundee the City Beautiful. Sadly, local politics scuppered much of his vision of a ‘majestic civic centre’ and only the Town Hall was built, but Simon’s song ‘A City Beautiful’ is as beautiful as Thomson’s vision and there is an even more beautiful video (by Simon P Biggs) of the song that I make no apology for including at the end of this review.
Simon Kempston loves his homeland warts and all, and he is by no means alone in that. Dougie Mclean’s ‘Caledonia’ has become almost a second National Anthem over the years and is a fitting way to end the evening – after of course a rousing rendition of that old Aberdeenshire drinking song Jock Stuart.
Simon Kempston had a short night’s sleep ahead of him before the long drive to Rapperswil next day. The rest of us wished each other a Merry Christmas and arranged to meet same time same place first Friday of January for meet number 65 – the celebratory drinks will be on Jock…
Finally – one of my favourite music videos of the year and a beautiful song from Simon Kempston: