The official theme was fresh air, but Bonn Folk Club has got so popular that it would have been a theme anyway as a packed Dotty’s welcomed special guests Tangoyim and a lively mix of styles and ages amongst the musicians, lucky enough to snare spots in the ever increasingly popular sets – including the son of a popular visitor. As always at FCB, the unexpected is to be expected…
I admit that I do get advance notice of the set-list for Bonn Folk Club. If I didn’t, my head would likely explode midway through the first half of the evening with names and songs (not something that John Harrison would approve of – exploding heads are possibly on a level of noise akin to amplification!). I wonder then, what must it be like to come down to Dotty’s on the first Friday of a month in complete ignorance of what will happen? The fact that all seats are gone even when I arrive a half hour before the start, tells me that it must actually be a positive aspect of the evening. It certainly tells me that all those people have complete trust that it’s worth going out on a cold night to see/ and hear who knows who or what.
Well, there is of course usually a featured guest – but I wonder if most of the audience even know who that will be? Does it matter to them? For the most part, I suspect not one iota. Maybe it didn’t do any harm though on a cold February night to have a familiar guest – Tangoyim – who over a number of years have become both loved and respected locally. The music they bring is certainly inspiring, but it carries a heavy load in its roots, as we shall see later.
For John Harrison ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ was an immediate starter for the fresh air theme. It’s a beautiful folk classic of course. My favourite version is from British Folk legend Bert Jansch, but John, together with Eva on violin, played it with true feeling and of course, there was plentiful assistance in backing vocals from the audience come chorus time and “will ye go lassie go?!” That said, the highlight of John and Eva’s opening set had to be ‘Angel in Disguise’. The song itself originates from a late friend of John’s, Jonathan Ole Wale Rogers, but had extra resonance on this evening with John remembering Christian Schuster who so often graced our Club with his melodic guitar playing and whose funeral took place recently.
A sad song indeed, but fortunately Gerd Müller was on hand to lift the melancholy as only he can – with a humorous poem. ‘Jesus walked on water’ came finally to the conclusion (not definitely proven) that he did so because he couldn’t swim. I guess that was true biblical thinking outside the box.
Uwe Gillert was pencilled in to appear as a duo with John Hay, so when he stepped out of the practice room with four other people, none of whom was John Hay, I wondered whether I too might as well go without a ‘set-list’ (especially as the preceding name on it was a ‘no show’). Uwe told me later that they hadn’t had time for much practicing together, but it certainly didn’t show. His songs are always thoughtful, and ‘Rife for the Insel’ is, by the audiences applause, something a great many people would agree with. It’s a German way of saying a person is in need of a holiday: “Offline… the world won’t collapse!!!”.
Thoughtful too was ‘Sie weisst nicht das sie schön ist’ inspired by Uwe’s meeting with a blind woman and admiring her ability to cope with things that ‘seeing’ people so easily take for granted. The quintet’s encore was also thoughtful, about a relationship crisis. Not drawn from personal experience as Uwe was quick to point out beforehand: “I am just a good observer of others!” I’ve written a lot here about Uwe himself but must mention that his ‘band’ for the evening were all marvellous at such short notice. I loved especially Jacob Sadoge’s vocal on ‘Feuer & Flamme’. Michael Massler (bass), Max Gillert (guitar) and of course the always dependable Eva Henneken also deserve to take a bow.
One of my favourite cd’s of last year came not from Ed Sheeran, nor even Joe Bonamassa, but from a Yorkshireman in a battered hat and playing an even more battered guitar. Matthew Robb was down at the club last year with not just his wonderful new disc ‘Spirit in the Form’ but also, for the first time, with his son Sam. Tonight Matthew was back, but this time as a spectator as Sam, at the age of sixteen, made his first appearance alone in Germany (Matthew told me later that there was a previous brief live appearance in England). Where better to get stage experience in this world than at Bonn Folk Club – where everyone gets attention and, at the very least, appreciative applause? I had a sneaking suspicion that Sam would get rather more than an ‘appreciative’ round of applause though – and I wasn’t wrong. He makes for the shyest of performers does Sam Robb. The stool to sit on is found by following the carpet leading to it and it’s not until halfway through the first song that he ‘dares’ to peer up under a mop of hair to see if we are still there. I can well understand his concern, because there is total silence. The reason for that being that we are all enthralled by the young man in front of us. Howling Wolf’s classic ‘Smoke Stack Lightning’ is delivered in a manner that made me think of the master of shy blues himself Robert Johnson.
Sam Robb followed up his haunting opener with two more sinewy, from the gut, blues classics. Well, at least I thought that’s what they were. Certainly, I’d heard both before somewhere. It turned out to be from more contemporary pens: Tom Waites’ ‘Cold, Cold Ground’ and, astoundingly as I realised later, Ed Sheeran’s ‘Make it Rain’. To say that Sam Robb ‘did well’ at his first real appearance would be a vast understatement. He took three songs, and ‘owned them’ – putting on an individual stamp. Remarkable, and I look forward to seeing Sam and Matthew come back to Bonn Folk Club again. A quick mention too of good news: Matthew tells me that he is going into a studio very soon to record the follow up to ‘Spirit in the Storm’. 3songsbonn will keep you informed about that. It promises to be a musical highlight of 2019.
We don’t get a lot of them, but its always a pleasure to have choirs coming along to sing at Folk Club, and Just 4 are proof of how effective the human voice in unison can be. Sometimes the most unexpected of songs get an acapella treatment. The Beach Boys ‘I Get Around’ is not a surprise as a good vocal song, and ‘Take Me Home’ by Pentatonix just cries out for the finger-clicking that Just 4 provide. The Eurythmics ‘Sweet Dreams’ also worked surprisingly well though.
Now, onto the main act and heavier matters. January 27th saw the 74th Anniversary of Liberation in the death camps of Auschwitz. It was therefore especially fitting to have Kletzmer specialists Tangoyim as guests this evening. As Accordionist/vocalist Daniel Marsch points out, the name ‘Tangoyim’ comes from ‘Tam’-joy and ‘Goyim’ not Jewish and indeed neither he nor Stefanie Hölzle is Jewish. They bring with them though Jiddish Kletzmer music; a style that Nazi persecution brought to the edge of extinction. Prior to the Holocaust, there were 11–13 million speakers of Yiddish among 17 million Jews worldwide. The stark fact that 85% of the approximately 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers says all that needs to be said here.
The result is a music that contains both great joy and great sadness of spirit. There’s a feeling of siding with the underdog too, as in ‘Shwartse Kats’, an animal doomed to go through life as unlucky. The theme takes on a far starker resonance though in one of the most famous Yiddish songs ever. When Joan Baez introduced ‘Donna Donna’ to audiences in the 1960’s it was nothing more than a curious parable to many. Baez herself would have known of the song’s countenance for sure though. The lyric, with its tale of a poor calf being driven to slaughter and a farmer telling it that the fault lies with the calf itself for not being born a swallow and able to fly to its own destiny. The comparison to Holocaust prisoners is obvious, and, indeed, the song was at one time ascribed to the Hebrew Yiddish poet Jizchak Katzenelson who perished in Auschwitz. Even here, in the warm confines of Dotty’s, and surrounded by friendly faces, there is a strange, funereal air about the mournful refrain. Haunting music indeed.
To close, Daniel and Stefanie presented Franz-Josef Degenhart’s ‘Die Alten Lieder’:
“Where are the songs – the old songs? Brown hordes shouted their deaths. Boots stamped them into the dirt!”
The old songs that have survived live on still in the caring and skilful hands of musicians like Tangoyim. The fiddle powered exuberance of Wedding music or the mournful wish for things lost. It’s music both from the heart and for the heart. As such, Bonn Folk Club is as fitting a place as any I know to hear it.
Jock Stewart was more thoughtful than usual at the evenings close. Perhaps contemplating the round celebration coming in March – FCB #100 looms on the horizon. An evening welcoming all musicians to come along and play for three minutes. It happened at FCB #50. It was mad, it was bad, and above all – it was FUN. 1st March, Dotty’s Sports Bar. See you there?