Not having been back to my home country for over two years it was rather pleasant to walk down to Kleines Theater in the Bad Godesberg Kurpark on Monday. For one, it was slightly drizzling with rain. ‘Even the weather will be Best of British’ I sighed happily inside my waterproof jacket. Music from the British Isles was what it said on the flyers. But what exactly was that? I mean, we all know Irish jigs and Scottish bagpipes, but can you fit four individual territories into one evening, indeed into an evening ending at 10 pm, in the park in one evening? If anyone could, it would be the man stepping promptly onto the stage at 7:30 pm.
Indeed, that man had to be super prompt because John Harrison had around 1000 years of history to get through – and only a half-hour or more to do it in. Well, he certainly managed the period from Caesar to Churchill admirably. Encompassing the classic ’12 Gates to the City’ which indeed there once were in Bonn as John, official 17th Century Nightwatchman with Stattreisen, would know. He would also be familiar with ‘The Art of Begging’ – about possibly the oldest ‘profession’ in existence (okay, there are others more famous!). His performance of Leon Rosselson’s ‘World Turned Upside Down’, later famously covered by The Proclaimers, took me back to History lessons of old and a time when Levellers were not people who knocked down old buildings or dealt with land subsidence.
John was well into ‘Over The Hills and Far Away’ with his recitation of that famous poem: “King George commands and we obey!” when he realized that time was, as a more recent musical poet observed, A jetplane. That said, I’m glad there was still time for Kipling’s wonderful poem ‘If’, one of my favourites of all time. Indeed, if only there was more time… but John had to cut corners in order for Ireland to take centre stage.
Shay McVeigh has lived a large part of his life now in Bonn, but if his body is in Germany then his soul is still very much back in Belfast. There is pride in his voice as he reveals accepting John’s invitation to join tonight’s show, and then finding himself snowed under with the history of Irish music on pages of paper on his table – and that was only the songs he knew, in a land where the pubs have been full of both beer and music for as long as anyone can, or wants to, remember.
Shay’s start is a little hesitant, but his gentle balladic style gradually gets to the heart of each audience member. You can almost see the magic spreading like a gently calming mist through the rows. Irish Mist? Whatever, Shay has more talent than I suspect even he realizes. He starts on safe ground with the traditional classic ‘Star of the County Down’, Goes by way of Kieren Goss’ ‘Out of my Head’ and Mick Flannery’s ‘Boston’, to arrive at one of Ireland’s most famous sons: “We all listen to him in Ireland. Even if we say we don’t” confides Shay with a grin on his face and a Guinness in his hand before launching into Van Morrison’s ‘Wonderful Remark’.
Neither John Prine, nor his song character ‘Sam Stone’ were Irish, but I am glad that Shay reprieved his performance of this Prine classic. It was my highlight of the Folk Club show at the Harmonie last year and a highlight again tonight. That said, there is many a song for Shay still to sing from Ireland – and I hope he will do so at a Folk Club nearby before too long. In the meantime, it’s time we took a break in preparation for a trip up North to Scotland.
But what’s that strange language I hear emanating across the ether during the break from Cedar to Oaktree? I recognize the tune at least – ‘All Through The Night’ is a traditional tune that I remember from school choir days (before my voice broke and I sadly had to go back to mathematics lessons instead of choir practice). Actually, this rather pleasant language is Welsh, and even though it’s sung by a Canadian, Steve Perry, it sounds authentic to my non-welsh ears. If you’re reading this, Good health to you Steve and good luck with the stem cell transplants that prevented your being here in person. Do you get a preference for the donor? Welsh would certainly be up your musical street.
When I first saw him at 7 pm Simon Kempston had been tired. His eyes told me that he hadn’t been able to sleep for quite a while, even before he thought back when I asked him and answered “On Saturday”. The journey down from Copenhagen to Bonn had been a long one full of delays and missed connections. “Thank goodness for coffee” he had smiled, before digging deep into his last reserves of strength and then into the box of CD’s that he was setting up to sell after tonight’s show.
If you check out my interview with Simon you will find that he is generally something of a workaholic where music is concerned. Wikipedia even quotes him as playing 160+ concerts in one year (2018). Today is 3 August, and this will be only Simon’s 3rd show in 2021, following on from two in Denmark. Like most musicians, he has tried to bridge the musical gap via online concerts – but there’s nothing like real flesh and blood people on real plastic seats in a real concert setting to get the adrenalin going – and after the tiring journey he will need every drop of it.
Beer glasses are quickly emptied and seats are quickly filled for the Scottish part of our musical ‘walk’ through the British Isles. You can almost see the tiredness slip away the moment Simon Kempston picks up his handmade Tara guitar – a luthier favoured by Martin Simpson and Dougie McLean to name just two folk-music legends. In front of him, Festival Organizer Sabine Kohne-Kayser is mentioning money raised for the recent Ahr flood, and forthcoming attractions at the Kleines Theater situated next to the stage. All the time I notice that Simon is quietly pacing the stage behind her, guitar eagerly in hand, like a lion hungry for… music.
It doesn’t take more than a few notes before Simon looks like the guitar has never left his hands, is a part of them even. He really does have the lightest, sweetest touch of any guitar player I’ve heard. Lightly shaking the guitar to get the last echoes of resonance out at the end of a song. He can be pretty tough lyrically too though and pulls no punches introducing ‘No More Evil’ – his song and thoughts about the present incumbent of 10 Downing Street.
A lot of tonight’s material comes from Simon’s new CD, which showcases him at his songwriting best and is something that his fine finger-style playing tends to draw praise away from. Alongside the always popular love songs like ‘To Be With You’, ‘All In’ and the album title number ‘Hand on my Heart’ there are also songs inspired by chance meetings and encounters: ‘The End Of It All’ deals with the tale of two boys whom Simon met that managed to find great success and later lose everything. Like all the best singer-songwriters, Simon absorbs the victories and losses of the people around him. Yes, his music is beautiful and yes, his songs also seem to have a gentle peace about them – but those melodies carry messages and observations that are often cutting.
To close the evening John and Shay returned for this evening’s rather loose (“Are you starting it, or shall I?”) rendition of the Festival regular song ‘Gute Nacht Freunde’. In truth, John had been so happy hearing Simon play again after so long that he had to be somewhat coaxed into bringing Simon’s wonderful set to a close for the extra song with Shay.
The evening though belonged to Scotland, and if you have seen Simon’s video of the song you will know how super ‘A City Beautiful’ is. It’s another of Simon’s songs from experience – based on a local architect’s plans to create a ‘City Beautiful’ – something close to Simon’s own heart since, not so long ago, he was on his own way to becoming a city planner. his later plans involved making his own way around the world with a guitar in his hand, and the World is much the better for his choice. ‘City Beautiful’ was even suggested in the Scottish Parliament as an ideal song to accompany Dundee’s bid to be European City of Culture in 2023.
Loud and heartfelt applause rang around the trees in Bonn Kurpark as Simon left the stage at 10 pm. Ahead of him is a short break before resuming that tour around the World that he started a few years ago. He won’t match that 160+ shows this year for sure – but I’m sure there will be as many as possible under his belt by December. Including one at Bonn Folk Club? Who knows. It is after all, as Simon says, “The best Folk Club outside of Scotland”.
Still to come Unter der Zeder: 9 August African Drums in the Park