What better on a Diamond Jubilee of an evening (Folk Club #75) than a diamond guest? Simon Kempston promised a few years ago that he would come down to Bonn Folk Club every year in December if he had a new cd to promote – and he has, every year since. In his first ever appearance at the new venue, Sträters Sports Bar, Simon once again had us enthralled with his blend of cutting lyrics wrapped up in delicate guitar melodies.
It could have been an evening for accounting songs with it’s theme of Gewinn/Verlust (winning & Losing) but as it turned out anyway most performers seemed to take the ‘Verlust’ part of the theme to heart and leave out any songs relating to the theme. The ‘Little Red Rooster’ in John’s famous blues of the evening was of course too lazy to crow for dawn so wouldn’t be too concerned about winning or losing. Equally the protagonist of ‘Take this hammer’ was probably primarily concerned about survival, but clearly dreams of the day a fellow worker can take his hammer to the Captain of the road gang and “Tell him I’m gone, oh tell him I’m gone!”. If you’re not familiar with this classic work song then check out the great Leadbelly and the mighty “HUH!” that he introduces every line with. A mighty powerful start to the evening.
When I shook hands with Simon Kempston and welcomed him back to Bonn he was clearly tired. He explained that this was week seven in a row of touring and he was looking forward to getting back to Edinburgh for a good sleep. Any hopes he had for a rest during part one of the show were dashed though as John called in vain for the next act to take the stage, and when that led to silence he called for the act after the next to take the stage – with equal silence. This left Simon disappearing backstage to re-emerge, apologizing that his guitar hadn’t been warmed up for his slot. It sounded fine to me, but Simon is not someone for whom ‘fine’ is adequate. You only have to see how he coaxes the last echo out of each dying note to know that this man is in pursuit of musical perfection – each note handcrafted.
Simon’s first set of the evening was largely taken from last years excellent disc ‘The Last Car’ and featured ‘Consequences of a kiss’ and it’s tale of a New Year’s Eve sexual encounter and the documented consequences: “The thoughts of fatherhood scared me” abandonment of the situation, a new love, with other children, until one day years later the doorbell rings and “a small boy offered me a smile”… One man’s choices and fate told simply but effectively and the beautiful melody floating on top is the cream that makes a Simon Kempston song so beguiling. So don’t be fooled into thinking that a sugary coating of guitar has no substance beneath! Simon is a political animal too as his tale of Maggie Thatcher’s cut-throat Conservatism attests on ‘The Last Car’ to come out of a Scottish Factory.
Gert Müller’s ‘Weinachten op Bönnsch’ was a welcome bit of German poetic comedy. Excuse me not going into detail but I’m still improving my German language skills and the local ‘Bönnsch’ is at times a bridge too far. It went down well with the locals though.
Lothar Prünte also went down very well with both the locals and everyone else for that matter. The traffic problems of first half performers that had thrust poor Simon onstage with barely time for a wake-up espresso meant that Lothar had to pretty much ‘plug n play’ (well, come onstage straight after arriving – ‘plug’ would involve the ‘illegal’ use in folk club of an amplifier!) The Climax Blues Band’s ‘I love you’ sounded excellent with Lothar’s slightly gritty north England vocal style (which surprises even Lothar who says he’s never been in that part of the world. A highlight of the evening proved to be ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ which has proved also to be ironic with the recent passing of it’s writer Greg Lake.
A surprise set by the trio Red Peg was such a surprise that I’m not even sure of the name. Two Wolfgang’s (Schmeil and Koch) + Rolf Funken brought us, amongst other delights, Del Amitri’s ‚Be My Downfall‘ and ‘The Last to Know’ the second of which is a number I didn’t know before but worked especially well and had me checking out the band afterwards.
Part two saw reflections on the recent deaths of Fidel Castro and Leonard Cohen via Steve Mario and Barry (a sing-along to ‘Hallelujah’ was very appropriate and also a reminder that it’s impossible to think you know the lyrics of a Cohen song – everyone knows a different set of verses. One of the pleasures (and curses) of one of the world’s greatest song (and poetry) writers ever.
Barry sang an especially emotional ‘Poor wayfaring stranger’ due to it’s being a song he performed for a Gospel mass a week before his father’s death this year. Then he brought his daughter Emily to the ‘stage’ to well and truly steal the show with a voice that was quiet enough to just be heard but melodic enough to have everyone hanging on every word. Barry wisely hid behind Emily to sing the chorus of ‘I Larva you!’ (from the Pixar short film ‘Lava’) as if fearing rotten tomatoes for the corny title – but who could throw rotten veg at the charming Emily? And if we had then we would have missed some beautiful songs afterwards from her with Dar William’s ‘The Christians and the Pagans’ and Perry’s ‘If I die young’ with it’s sad but true final line: “Funny when you’re dead, how people start listening”
Barbara and Chris make up the duo Precious Few and they really Have gone for a minimalist approach to their music, a full band sound for the duo means Barbara picking up a melodica. Her vocals have been compared to Nico and PJ Harvey and there’s no doubt about the dark atmosphere that seeps out of the songs. Their debut CD ‘Tales’ was released on Tumbleweed Records last year. Precious Few’s is a sound that relies on an almost hypnotic interplay between voice and guitar.
There is a relentless quality about the guitar on ‘Astronaut’ as Barbara sings “I am the astronaut, I am Peter Pan” For some reason David Bowie leaps into my head with lyrics like these. The melodica has a harmonica-like quality which strictly isn’t necessary this evening as Paolo is backing them as he did recently at Café Lieblich. ‘Virtual Love’ continues the eerie atmosphere as it explores love in a virtual WWW Age. “Searched the web. My virtual love I need you here!”. When I checked the band out on Soundcloud it was telling I think that those little spikey graphs showing the sound level never really go wildly up or down – just a steady tempo and volume. Not a duo to listen to if you fancy a sing-along but certainly worth a listen for people on the lookout for a sound that’s a little different.
In contrast, Heartmanns had a sound you could slip into like a familiar pair of old shoes. Powred by Uwe Gillert’s guitar and song ‘Reif für die Insel’ we could all identifiy with the songs protagonist needing a break from daily stresses. The band was initiated in 2015 by seasoned local musician Marcus Hartmann and they radiated a good time feel about everything they played. The lively ‘Heute schon gelebt?’ and particularly ‘Du bist so negativ’ sung in a gloriously quirky fashion by Susanne Hartmann. Lots of applause and a deserved encore followed. Certainly a band I would like to hear again soon.
In that strange time capsule that is Bonn Folk Club we’ve gone from a first half of missing scheduled acts to a second half that is already rapidly advancing on the planned closing time for this evening and Simon Kempston still has a second set to perform. Buoyed by a strong coffee Simon is telling us about Marcus, border control, and adventures bringing his new CD across borders. Whilst the likes of Guns n Roses are charging 150 Euros for concert tickets, the vast majority of musicians are like Simon – Playing music because it’s what they do best and living from it by driving on an endless grey ribbon with a box of CD’s to put gas in the tank. Here and now, on a late evening and with a spellbound audience, is where it all becomes worthwhile.
Simon takes us into the late hours with some of his best recent material from the recent releases. ‘You and I must remember them’ is as beautiful an anti-war song as anything I’ve ever heard. ‘Where have all the flowers gone’, ‘Band played waltzing Matilda’ are just two classics in what is a popular mine for folk music. Add Simon’s offering to that fine list. There is a wonderful video HERE of the song but you really have to hear it, breathe it, in a live setting. On the subject of live videos, my favourite of last year was Simon’s ‘A City Beautiful’. More evidence that Simon can pack political clout behind a delicate tune. A City planners dream meets grim reality. The sadness of an evening that was love, or was it lust? is reflected in ‘Belfast City’ from the new ‘vanishing Act’ disc. “Don’t expect much to happen on a grim Belfast night” sings Simon kempston.
Expect a lot to happen on a pleasant Bonn night at Strater’s Sports Bar though on the first Friday of the month. Simon is in talks to have a custom guitar made with a leading Scottish luthier. Nothing too snazzy with ‘SK’ inlaid into the fretboard he insists with a smile. I can’t believe he can get a sweeter sound out of a guitar than he has got out of his guitars this evening. We make a pledge to meet in a years time – the name Kempston is already heavily penciled in for Folk Club December 2017. Twelve months then for Simon to work on the next CD. Right now it’s 11pm, the endless grey ribbon beckons, but this time at least it makes a detour that sees Simon Kempston back home in Edinburgh for a well-earned break. I wish everyone at Bonn Folk Club a similar well-earned break. See you next year!