Years ago I saw Wolfgang Niedecken walking through the Schildergasse, a main thoroughfare in Cologne. You could see people looking at him, recognizing him, and walking on. It was rather the way locals regards The Cathedral itself. A quick glance to see that the things that belong in Cologne are still where they should be. All is right with the World.
Tonight some of those locals might be looking around them with unease. The Cathedral is still there, but something is amiss… things are not right with the World in Cologne. It’s the last night of the band’s ‘Live & Deutlich’ (Live & Clear’) Tour for Niedecken’s legendary group BAP, and it’s taking place – in Bonn! The Kunstrasen to be precise.
At 6.30 pm people are usually just starting to trickle in through the gates towards the Kunstrasen stage. Tonight though the queues were already long at 5pm. The music starts at 6.30 and we’re not talking about a support band – One of Niedecken’s heroes is Bruce Springsteen, and they share many things in common it seems. A love for writing meaningful lyrics, for supporting causes, for good old fashioned Rock music, and most of all, a desire for marathon concerts.
Why does a man almost 70 years old put himself through this? I ask myself? You couldn’t blame him for doing his 90 minutes and getting back to Chlodwigplatz in time for a cold beer. Even the audience at a BAP concert struggles at times to keep its collective attention for three hours. There are 8,000 people here this evening, but for the first hour or so it seems like 1,000 or so of them ‘rotate’ between standing and singing word for word to every song and standing and drinking a beer away from the main stage. Only in the last hour, and particularly when the familiar first chords of ‘Verdamp Lang Her’ roll out into the darkening night sky does there seem to be a clarion call that draws everyone in front of the stage to wave hands and jump around like it was 1981 (the year BAP’s classic saw light on ‘Usszeschnigge’)
By then it has been a long musical journey since ‘Tara’s Theme’ signalled Niedecken and co’s arrival on the stage. A few years back at Museumsplatz I remember the audience seemingly losing interest in wave after wave of ‘new’ songs. The set-list has been sensibly overhauled since that day thankfully. The trusted crowd-pleasers are interspersed with the more thoughtful and less commercial numbers. ‘WaschSalon’ gets a very early airing for example and ‘Du Kannst Zaubre’ (“Our most romantic number” as Niedecken describes it) is almost too early. As he points out, the old days when the song was accompanied by rows of cigarette lighters in a night sky, have been replaced by cellphone lights – which isn’t quite the same. But hey, it’s only 8 pm and still light Wolfgang!
There are still rows of grown men swaying to, and singing to, every word though.. Often with similarly ‘grown’ women in their arms. Timelessness is the attribute of classic Rock music and an attribute we come back to time and again this evening. ‘Saach, wat ess bloß passiert?’ is from the 1996 disc ‘America’ but it seems like the entire audience takes over the whole song after hearing only the first line.
“It’s not okay to let people drown in the ocean!” says a stern-faced Niedecken. It’s a sad fact, as Niedecken points out, that he expected a song like ‘Arsch Huh’ to become irrelevant inside of a few months. With its tale of immigrant unrest though it has, he sadly concedes, remained as relevant as ever:
Du mähs et Fröhstöcksfernsehn ahn un
selvsverständlich wie die Wetterkaat
kütt unger ferner liefen,
wo se wievill Asylante plattjemaat.
(“You turn the tv on for breakfast, and, as familiar as the weather forecast, there’s an update on how many immigrants have been brought down”).
For those outside Cologne/Bonn, I should point out that Springsteen isn’t Niedecken’s only influence. He’s made an entire disc of Bob Dylan’s songs and, like Dylan, writes a devastating political lyric – shame that he chose to do so in Cologne’s ‘Kölsch’ dialect because he really does hit home.
Oddly enough he hits home most devastating of all in the seemingly political ‘Krystallnaach’, but as BAP fans have long known, the song is actually inspired by Niedecken’s strained relationship to his father, a lifelong member of the NSDAP (Nazi) Party – whose image briefly flickers on the big screen behind his son. The song is the conversation that father and son never got to have.
It’s not all sad and thoughtful balladeering though at a BAP concert. ‘Nemm Mich Met’ (Take me with you) rocks gloriously tonight and showcases the excellent guitar skills of Ulrich Rode and indeed the band itself is a class act. Axel Müller is BAP’s answer to Clarence Clemons on Sax and adds similar groove to the funkier numbers particularly. Christoph Moschberger and Johannes Glotz complete the wind section trio in style and I loved Moschberger’s articulate trumpet parts throughout the evening. Sönke Reich laid down a classy drum solo too on ‘Alexandra’ despite being barely a year old when the song first came out (Reich has the distinction of being the first band member to actually be younger than the band itself). For those that are not so keen on drum solos, there was a ballet dancer to watch as she serenely and erotically went through her routine on the big screen behind.
No one really believed that an acapella version of ‘Arsch Hu’ signalled anything other than a short intermission after two hours though. Niedecken painstakingly introduced the band and waved goodbye. ‘Na Ja’ as they say locally, No one headed for the exit despite the band’s already playing a third more of a concert than James Bay last week. One might say that this is where the concert really started. In fact, I will say so. The whole gig seemed to notch up about three gears. No one will ever believe a BAP concert is over until the man with now distinguished grey hair centre-stage sings ‘Verdamp Lang Her’. Inevitably, of course, said song is sung, and it’s barely past 9 pm. What time of day is this to finish a concert? Okay, the band has delivered 150 minutes music already – but still, the curfew is 10 pm isn’t it?
A good many people make their way to the exit as Niedecken thanks the band for the second time in the evening. Do they think it’s all over? Or are they anxious to avoid meeting a long line of cars all aiming for the same bit of motorway? I’ve been at the back of the audience, taking in the atmosphere of the happy smiling and dancing BAPsters around me. Finally, there’s space down the front, and there’s breathing space onstage too it seems. “I hope to see you all again next year” smiles the hero of the last three hours. A short pause – “I’ll be seventy then”. a slightly longer pause before he exclaims “Unglaublich!” (unbelievable). With a nod to another Niedecken hero, BB King; he confides “You may have to put up with me sitting down a lot by then” The set ends with an acoustic guitar and ‘Jraadus’ with lyrics that seem fitting this evening for the Man himself:
“Bliev do, wo de bess
Halt dich irjendwo fess
Un bliev su wie du woors
(Stay as you are. Hold on. Stay the way you’ve always been, keep going, straight on…)
Whilst there is a Wolfgang Niedecken walking down the Schildergasse, or downing a Kölsch in Chlodwig Platz, then the things that belong in Cologne are still in Cologne – and all is right with the World.
Finally, back in the Rockpalast Time-Machine to 1986… Verdamp Lang Her.