It’s 7.30pm at Bonn Kunstrasen and I meet some friends out back in the audience. “This is still the support act? Right?” one of them asks. By this time Wolfgang Niedecken and his band the legendary BAP have already been onstage for an hour and I have to explain that there ARE musicians out there who play according to their feelings and not to a 90 minute stopwatch – and yes, these guys were due to remain onstage until 10 pm. Fortunately they still had another two and a half hours to move up front in the audience and enjoy the finest Kölsch-rocker that ever trod the boards at Chlodwigplatz.
When I first moved to Germany I couldn’t understand the lyrics of any of the German bands playing so I immediately took a liking to BAP. Suddenly, I was on equal footing with a large chunk of Germans who also struggled to interpret Wolfgang Niedecken’s lyrics, written in one of the world’s lesser known and little spoken languages – Kölsch. The man even devoted a whole album to Bob Dylan covers – re-written in Kölsch naturally.
The band BAP is celebrating it’s 40th year with an album, titled rather ironically ‘Lebenslanglich’ (Life – as in convicted criminals getting a life sentence) and I’m drinking from a souvenir plastic cup with mugshot pictures of Niedecken from the 70’s and now. This is one happy band of ‘criminals’ on the stage and an even happier, and very much larger, band of fans spread out before them. Over 5000 people have arrived for the show. Many from places far away of course. “I remember doing a ‘European Tour’ in 1977 that saw us playing in every corner of Cologne” joked Niedecken. The fans range from those that are loud and lively up front, singing clapping and waving to every chorus, to a middle section standing quietly with beer glasses and memories of BAP concerts past flashing almost visibly before their eyes, to a third section almost hidden from Niedecken’s view in the distance that have put down blankets as if they are late arrivals for last month’s Classic Picnic. Many can’t even see the stage behind the lighting tower and advert hoardings but it’s enough just to be here as the music and the good vibes float on the light breeze – almost a spiritual event.
If their Messiah is Wolfgang Niedecken then they have chosen a man who sadly cannot change the world but one who has spent four decades putting its injustices into articulate song – and the latest release ‘Lebenslanglich’ shows he has lost none of that bite as the early favourites ‘Vision von Europa’ (“Not a Brexit song!” Niedecken points out) or the lyrics to ‘Absurdistan’ prove:
“On our journey through Absurdistan,
On the Global Ghost train
In Collective madness”
(Auf uns’rer Reise durch Absurdistan, auf der globalen Geisterbahn im kollektiven Größenwahn)
It stands as a companion piece to 1992’s protest song ‘Arsch Hu zang ussenander (Get off of your arses and sing together!!’ and sadly as the man himself points out before the classic ‘Kristall Naach’ thirty four years on racism still rears its ugly head.
Following his stroke in 2011 it would be easy to just take any BAP concert with Niedecken as a cause for celebration and not get too excited about the main man’s performance a la the later days of BB King. I get the impression that there is a segment of the audience here today with that mind-set. Thank goodness though that the man himself doesn’t play to them.
In such a long set there is time for old and new of course and even a little borrowed (from Crosby, Stills Nash and Young). Aside from the music itself I’m amazed at anyone who can remember so many lyrics from so many songs over so many years. Niedecken has his feet firmly on the ground and his own musical heroes to guide him still. He speaks of recently seeing Neil Young, the inspiration for Niedeckens own ‘Helfe kann dir keine’ and I remember seeing him grinning happily amongst the crowd during Bob Dylan’s visit to Kunstrasen not so long ago. He has nothing more to prove but still has the hunger to want to prove it. The band isn’t prime BAP of course but Ulrich Rode gets to play some enjoyable solos particularly later in the set and drummer Jurgen Zöller manages the hefty challenge of dramatic tempo/mood changes beautifully.
It’s as much fun to hear the between song banter as the songs themselves at times. The ‘Selfie’ brigade for instance that Niedecken berates as asking for a quick photo with him and then saying afterwards how they used to be fans – but stopped listening to him in 1982 or something as he describes. “When you stopped being political” or “When the Major left the band” (Klaus Heuser, 1999).
Well here’s the truth – Wolfgang will never stop being political. If he did he might as well stop playing music because it’s the niggly wrongs of this world that inspire him. Maybe his approach to them has changed these days to encompass not just music. His is a voice popular on tv talk shows and he is an active ambassador for Project Rebound and it’s rehabilitation of Child soldiers and forced prostitution victims in the 3rd world. Media has changed since the 70’s and anyone who has a message has to change with it.
The old hits are in no short supply of course. An almost Dire Straitsy ‘America’, the Reggae-fied ‘Ab und Zo’ and the anthemic ‘Verdamp lang her’ all get deserved applause even if they deserve a few decibels more volume.
There’s a ‘Romantic Interlude’ on acoustic and a chance for Wolfgang Niedecke to thank everyone for coming to hear him sing all these years “without getting too sentimental!” he quickly adds. But how can you not feel a little sentimental when you know enough German to understand the words of ‘Jraaduss’:
Bleib da, wo du bist
Halte dich irgendwo fest
und bleibe so wie du warst
‘Stay there as you are, hold on fast, stay as you always were, undaunted’
In a frighteningly changeable world I held up a mental cigarette lighter to these words when they came. Forty years on and there’s no doubting that Wolfgang Niedecken is not the man his ‘Selfie’ doubters think he is. The last words I heard him speak after three and a half hours of magic were a tongue in cheek “Danke furs kommen. Empfehl uns weiter!” (Thank you for coming, please recommend us to your friends!) Niedecken is confidently expecting an imminent European Tour that this time around might stretch somewhat further than Chlodwigplatz and the Oldtown of Cologne…