I was recently critical of Bonn Folk Club’s themed evenings. Almost no-one pays any real attention to it I said. Ah, but when the theme is trains… then things run along a different track (excuse the pun). Here we were for the final first Friday of the year at Dotty’s Sports Bar, and the list of train songs seemed almost as long as the list of stations between Bonn and Berlin. When it comes to emotionally charged lyrics, it seems trains evoke the songwriter in us all – and when not in us personally, there are plenty of standards to choose from.
John Harrison, with the help of Eva Henneken, got us off of the platform promptly at 7 pm and took us ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ – No, not the Gary Moore or Led Zeppelin rockers, but a traditional folk song about going off to War. Not a single train is mentioned, in fact the King George version sung by John is actually more of a recruiting song for a long disbanded army, but travelling none the less, if only to a battlefield. I missed the lyrics to Lighting Sam Hopkins’ ‘Arkansas’ so I’ll give John the benefit of the doubt that it may have mentioned a train. Why did I miss it? Well, I knew the next song was about trains, because I was playing on it.
‘People Get Ready’ needs no introduction. It’s so well known in fact that the audience will usually jump onboard with their voices every time they hear the word ‘People’ and jump off again when it gets to ‘Onboard’. I jumped on and off with my backing in a similar vein, and left it to John and Eva to do the fiddly bits (literally in Eva’s case).
I can now admit that I had an ulterior motive for supporting on ‘People Get Ready’- it would get me on the stage for a quick solo spot. One of the first songs I ever learned was about trains. In fact, I first discovered the beauty and power of Folk Music through the unassuming but devastating persona of Ralph McTell. Later I would discover ‘heavyweights’ like Dylan and Woody Guthrie, but in it’s day ‘Streets of London’ sent me running to McTell’s back-catalogue (which in those days was only a couple of records) and I was bowled over by Ralph’s ability to find both the raw emotion in a situation and describe it simply and perfectly.
In short, one of the first songs I ever learned to play on guitar was ‘Terminus’. Its description of the moment when a train arrives and a loved one departs is pure Ralph Mctell – short, simple, perfect. I declined John’s offer of making a ‘train whistle fill the air’ with his harmonica, in favour of Eva’s heart tugging violin. Sadly, my version on this fine evening was not recorded for posterity, but will nonetheless be forever etched in my heart. It remains only for me to say that I am feverishly looking for a sad song to fit next months theme that requires a violin. Plenty of time for Eva to read this and plan a holiday for the first Friday of January to avoid me…
Gert Müller’s ‘Weihnachts Gedicht in Bönnsch’ has become a tradition at Folk Club in Winter. One day I will be able to understand enough Folk-German (Platt Deutsch) to tell you what it’s about. I think I have an idea now, having heard the names Joseph and Mary in it somewhere.
The next song was certainly something I, who lives in Kessenich but works on the other side of the tracks, could relate to – a song about the train barriers in Bonn – where I have spent up to 40 minutes at a stretch waiting for trains consisting of two carriages and three travellers in the company of as many cyclists as take part in the Tour de France and assorted men, women, dogs and push-chairs. ‘People get ready there’s a train a-coming’ indeed! Thanks to Holger, John Mario, Uta and Thomas for finding the words (probably written whilst standing at the barriers – there were a lot of verses). So, the train songs were indeed coming thick and fast now, continued by a welcome return to Folk Club from 2Sunny who added ‘Freight Train’ to the haul.
Chris Biederwolf certainly took the theme to heart like no-one else. There he stood, singing about steam locomotives and the train between ‘Nürnburg and Fürth’, clad in dungarees and with a cap on his head proclaiming ‘Chatanooga Choo Choo’. All in all Chris looked like he’d just stepped off the engine after shovelling coal for an hour.
Antonio Carlos Jobim was a central force in the development of the Bossa Nova music style. In the early 1960’s, when his Bossa Nova albums first appeared, they stormed the charts. The likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra wanted to collaborate with Jobim, and his new sound was taken on board in the Jazz world by the likes of Stan Getz and Coleman Hawkins.
It’s hard to imagine Jobin’s sound seeming groundbreaking now – but it’s not hard to imagine why it became so popular when you hear it’s commercial appeal. Sparkling Lights introduced us to a selection of Jobim’s work, and I particularly enjoyed ‘Desafinado’ with a wonderful solo by guest Werner Krotz-Vogel
Barry Roshto’s appearance on piano to start part two was particularly special when he was joined by the audience on the chorus of Passengers ‘Let Her Go’. It was played for a regular Folk Club musician who is currently very ill, and I do remember that, as moving as the song was when Passenger (Michael David Rosenberg) played it at Kunst!Rasen, this evening’s rendition was pure Folk Club magic.
Well, whilst ‘passenger’ is sort of a by-product of the train theme, there were still plenty of genuine train songs to be sung this evening. Wolfgang Schriefer hit the perfect groove for audience participation with the Beatles scurrilous ‘Why don’t we do it on the train?’ when he got the ladies and the gentlemen to take separate choruses. He was spot on too when he defended the seemingly non-train song ‘My body is a cage‘ by saying “Well, being stuck in a train can feel like you’re stuck in a cage!”
Jan Hoffmann und Volker Lindner aka Folkscheuchen are actually, despite their name, quite a rocking duo. Their ‘Zug nach Flensburg‘ certainly travelled at a steady, rocky but enjoyable pace, as did their whole set. Always an energetic performance by the duo.
Steve warned me beforehand to have a handkerchief ready for his first train song – and not for waving goodbye either. Everly Brothers fans might remember ‘Lightning Express (Please Mr Conductor)‘ about a young boy without a ticket:
Don’t put me off of this train
The best friend I have in this world sir
Is waiting for me in pain
Expecting to die any moment sir
And may not live through the day
I wanna reach home and kiss mother goodbye
Before God takes her away” – Bradley Kincaid
Along with Regine and Mario, Steve followed up on that earlier song about modern-day train tribulations – the eternal crossing barriers – with a wonderful comic tribute to the equally wonderful Deutsche Bahn: The Wise Guys song ‘Senk ju vor träwelling wis Deutsche Bahn’. A long song, with many verses, but still barely scratching at the surface of all the things wrong with traveling on Germany’s rail system in 2018.
It’s difficult not to like a Scotsman who proclaims that Bonn Folk Club is the best Folk Club outside of Scotland. Heck, it’s difficult not to like Simon Kempston full stop. He has a few things in common with the earlier mentioned Ralph McTell. That calm air that I loved from Ralph, and the ability to put feelings and situations perfectly down in words and music.
John Harrison once jokingly agreed with Simon that he could only come back to the best Folk Club outside Scotland if he had a new CD to offer since the last visit. Every year since there has been a new disc added to the row on top of the piano for sale. This year’s addition ‘Broken Before’ is, in my opinion, possibly his best to date. The songs seem more accessible than at times on previous releases and the observations as perfectly made as ever. Meeting a boxer whose fight record was not so perfect, who confided to Simon that losing wasn’t such a big problem anymore – “Broken? I’ve been broken before”. A great answer, and the perfect title for a song and a CD. Another example of Simon’s eclectic mind: On hearing, during a concert visit to Münich, the story of a young lad who miraculously survived a punishing migrants journey through Turkey, Greece and Serbia, to finally reach Germany, Simon wrote ‘Mohammad’s Story’:
‘Took a boat from Turkey. Lost fuel at sea. With land far away, the boat we had to flee. Midst the cris of panic, helped all I could. Fear of drowning I banished, as anyone would” – Simon Kempston
My favourite of the evening, and indeed, of the album, is ‘He Remembers You’ and it’s sad realization that even memories are not invincible against time. Really though, so many pearls from Simon and his two lady accompanists. Lady accompanists? Well, for anyone with such a feeling for guitar playing we are of course talking about guitars here. Simon’s Old Irish Love and New Scottish Beauty are two guitars – made in those respective countries – and Simon’s new love was perfectly in harmony with him on the instrumental ‘Winter Chimes of Romainmotier’. As usual when Simon kempston is weaving his six string magic, the evening whizzed past like those trains you see at crossing barriers. He signed off in fine style with the gentle pop-folk of ‘Love Her Still’ from the new disc. Shades of Bowie’s ‘China Girl’ in those ‘oh wo ho ho’s’ but the guitar playing was all Simon Kempston at his best – which every year seems to be a little better than the perfect he came up with the year before.
Somewhere early in Simon’s second set of the evening I saw John Harrison vacate his usual place at the side of the hall, pick up the piano stool, and sit down on it as directly in front of Simon as was possible. The harmony on John’s face as Simon played was a joy to behold. I suspect Simon would be welcomed back even without a new CD to offer – but don’t tell Simon Kempston that please! On the subject of discretion, please don’t tell anyone in Scotland, but Simon has ‘upgraded’ his statement about our little club – “The best Folk Club including Scotland” I still expect another CD on the piano for sale next December Simon!
Finally, my inspiration for folk music sporting a very 70’s haircut but singing a timeless song – Terminus…