Simon Kempston – The December Man is Back in Bonn

Simon Kempston first graced the Folk Club in Bonn with his presence in 2011, so this year’s appearance would and should have been a celebration of that anniversary – with a packed audience and singing/playing into the night at Dotty’s Sports Bar. Then came Covid, then Omicron, then the illness of Master of Ceremonies John Harrison along with others on the Club Committee also sick or unavailable. Bonn Folk Club doesn’t give up that easily though and, against all odds, here we are on a chilly first Friday in December for a concert with Simon. The closed-off balcony next to the bar at Dotty’s is set up invitingly, it’s showtime. There’s a real fire blazing in the grate, the audience is seated and eagerly awaiting a hearty “Ladies & Gentlemen!”– and then Simon calls to say he’s stuck in a traffic jam somewhere between Graurheindorf and the restaurant…

‘KEEP CALM!’ that’s what those trendy WW2 posters used to say. I’m doing my best. Normally there would be a half dozen guitarists/singers in the audience all rubbing their hands gleefully at the chance of getting a longer set. Today, as (bad)luck would have it, is very possibly the first time that there is absolutely no one in the audience who plays or sings – and I’ve left my own guitar at home.

Could a Christmas Folk Club be thinkable without Gert Müller and his ‘Weihnachten op Bönnsch’ poem? I’m certainly glad that Gert is here this evening, except Gert reckons it’s only about six minutes long. Where is John and his ‘Albert Mctavish’s brand new frigidaire‘ opus when you need it? (note to self: learn to play the harmonica and keep one in my pocket for emergencies). Oh, and did I mention, there’s a rock band sound-checking in the next room?

KEEP CALM indeed. Thankfully, Simon wasn’t involved in the accident on the road creating the traffic jam and when I finally see him the other side of the glass balcony door, guitar case in each hand, he is indeed a welcome site. In such a situation my own nerves would be well and truly sizzled; he has obviously just walked in from the car park after being stuck en route for an hour, but Simon looks immaculately calm as he apologizes for being late, even though it’s not his fault, and immediately goes to work setting up his microphone and mini-amp for the show. Yes, don’t tell John Harrison, but Simon actually used electricity. Blame me – I inadvertently mentioned I had heard loud musical rumblings from the room next door.

I like to think drove a hard bargain when it came to helping out on the night. Not your usual rock star conditions like a fridge full of 1927 champagne or a carpet of rose petals I hasten to add. “Can I shout out ‘Ladies and Gentlemen!’ to start the evening?” I asked. I could, so I did.

Simon was, as always, a master singer, player, storyteller. He never once looked round at the log fire crackling ominously behind him within striking distance of his priceless bespoke Taran guitar. Nor did Simon at any time make coughing or choking noises as the smoke level in the room began to increase due to the absence of a door in the temporary plastic wall. A communal search by the small but enthusiastic audience revealed a zip flap to the cold but oxygen-filled outside world and we all took a break and a lung full of fresh air.

Christmas Bonn style from Gert Müller

In the absence of Detlef to chronicle the music, Simon jotted down his set-list, so I can tell you that he played 14 songs on the evening including a good portion of his 2020 release ‘Hand on my Heart’. Sandwiched between the evening’s two oldest tracks 2016’s ‘Man of Peace’ and a favourite of mine, 2013’s ‘Bus to Nairn’ there was something for everyone.

It’s true to say that just listening to Simon’s immaculate fingerpicking is an easy (and pleasant) trap to fall into, but in so doing it’s easy to miss the sharpness of his songwriting, often hidden inside those soft and delicate guitar melodies. The opener ‘Man of Peace’ with its denunciation of gun-carrying is five years old now but as recent tragic events in Michigan prove, sadly still relevant. ‘Time Now to Go’ from 2018’s ‘Broken Before’ release tells of the effect of mine closures.

There are relationship songs too. ‘Run with you Darling’ with it’s deliciously upbeat melody. There is the quick yet delicate picking on ‘The end of it all’. Did you know that Dundee United is not the only team in Simon’s home town? There is no love lost in football as Simon shows in his lyrics about this theme.

Most of all, there is no love lost in politics. A lot of readers will be familiar with the gritty political songwriting of Londoner Sean Taylor (check out his ‘This is England‘). Well, Simon does some pretty gritty political observation too – he just wraps it up in more delicate paper. Check out the video below of ‘No More Evil’ from the concert for proof of this. There’s also the new, as yet unreleased, track too, ‘A Tale of Two Unions’ that nails Simon’s dream of a free Scotland finally to the mast. The World envisaged by Nicola Sturgeon is a ‘Dis-United Kingdom’ he believes, and his wish for a separate Union hits home lyrically: “We’re Scottish, not British. European instead!”

Not that the genial Scotsman doesn’t also have a heart for matters of that very internal organ. A large portion of today’s set comes in fact from his 2020 release ‘Hand on My Heart’. The quirky ‘You Belong to Me’ had feet tapping but during the haunting love song ‘All In’ you could hear a pin drop. Simon is a master of subtle dynamics in his sets and it was great to hear one of my SK favourites ‘Bus to Nairn’ rounding off an evening of intense moments both musically and lyrically from one of the best musicians on the European folk circuit. We really are blessed at Bonn Folk Club when it comes to attracting fine musicians and they don’t come finer than the man from Dundee.

I chanced the ‘Ladies and Gentlemen…’ that introduces each Folk Club, but gave Jock Stuart the day off on condition that he’s back for the next Folk Club – along with John Harrison et al.

For the many who missed it – here is a snippet of Simon in action at Dotty’s…

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