It is both a pleasure and a pain when John Harrison does his sets at Bonn Folk Club. A pleasure because of the songs and his enthusiastic presentation of them, but a pain because they invariably lead me down a rabbit-hole of research. His opener on Friday was no exception: ‘Berry Fields of Blair’ was written by Belle Stewart about Blairgowrie in Perthshire – famous for its fields of soft fruit, especially raspberries, drawing seasonal workers from all over Scotland. There was, she later described, often a holiday atmosphere with old friends and ready money, although the work was hard. As with so many other labour tasks, mechanization of the process meant the end of the human side of the picking process and the camaraderie that went with it. Belle wrote a new song each Hogmanay, of which this was the first. She went on to become one of Scotland’s finest traditional singers… and there I withdraw before I become lost in another rabbit hole of information.
John, accompanied by harp player extraordinaire Christoph Thiebes, took us through Furry Lewis’s ‘I’ll Turn Your Money Green’ before John introduced ‘The Chemical Workers Song’ reflecting on the long-term hazards and appalling conditions that Teessiders endured whilst working at ICI in the 1960’s. This Ron Angel song is, I should add, another depth-less rabbit-hole that I won’t go down if I want to get this review finished before Christmas. ‘A Begging we will Go’ rounded off John’s set and, rather as Ralph McTell remarked fifty years after writing about the homeless in ‘Streets of London’, things have not changed as much as they should to help the people whose suffering inspired the writers.
Mario Dompke was also in a thoughtful mood with his set, beginning with ‘Die Antwort Weiss nur der Wind’ which was not a steal from Bob Dylan about wars, but instead a remark regarding protecting our climate. As with Mr Zimmermann’s more famous opus, the answer is blowing in the wind. Next song up and ‘what is the meaning of life?’ Another toughie to answer. Mario asks it though in his own song ‘Begegnung’ which was written 20 years ago but played live for the first time today. It concerns a search for the meaning of life – and despite the intervening 20 years, the answer is still unknown. A gentle song though, worth hearing, and reminding a little of the aforementioned ‘Streets of London’ in structure, another song awaiting answers… There are also no answers to how cruel life can be, and Mario played a song by Reinhard Mey over the tragedy of his son Maximilian who spent some five years in a coma following Pneumonia and heart problems. Mario’s fingerpicking on this is wonderful in its power. Sadly there are no answers to some of Life’s greatest questions. If Mario couldn’t find any answers though he did raise the questions melodically and sympathetically (and with some excellent fingerpicking)
Hans Ihnen was joined by Christoph Thiebes for his own composition ‘Rentner Blues’. One that us older statesmen in the audience could identify with. As is true of Neil Young’s ‘Old Man’ written from the point of view of a young man. “Old man, look at my life. I’m a lot like you”. One wonders how ‘old’ Young’s old man actually is. Hopefully older than the man in the Ewan Macoll lyric not played by Mario but that sprang to mind “Anyone over 12 years old was half-way to the tomb” (My Old Man). Thankfully Hans closed with the calming Eagles song ‘Last Resort’ and no mention of age or aging.
I must admit to being a bit naughty when it came to my own participation this time around. John Harrison had offered me a floor spot for one song and I decided, on the spur of the moment, that a poem doesn’t count as a song so… But actually, ‘Mr Van Doring’ was originally a song but two things changed my approach for the evening: One – the wonderful way that Kate MacAllister delivered her poetry recently at Unter der Zeder and, more importantly to a lazy me, it meant I didn’t have to carry a guitar. The subject of my poem/song, Mr Van Doring, is a man who enjoys his retirement snoozing in the garden whilst I try to work and whom I see drinking in local cafes as I struggle home carrying my days shopping from REWE. I admit – it’s a poem of jealousy. Very different in viewpoint from the Big Bill Broonzy number of my next song – ‘Bankers Blues’. It is, I admitted beforehand, a bit anti-women. A wife who steals a man’s money and car, and a Mother-in-Law who is “Even quicker on the drawer” when it comes to drawing out money from the man’s bank account. To all those who were offended – I didn’t write it. To everyone who laughed in the right places – thank you.
Katherina Brosch took time out from being front-Frau with Bonn Indie-Pop band White Maze to do a short acoustic set and apparently changed her set at the last moment to answer back on my rather misogynistic ‘Bankers Blues’ with ‘Hit the Road Jack’ becoming ‘Hit the road John!’. Sensitive soul that I am I may never recover the confidence to play onstage again. On the other hand, criticism is infinitely better than people ignoring you onstage – so I take it as a compliment Katherina. Actually, her impromptu song went down well and had everyone singing along.
Katherina also did a nice version of ‘Wonderful Life’ which has always been a favourite song of mine and featured on the Katie Melua set-list at Brückenforum. I was rather sad to find that Colin Vearncombe who wrote and recorded it as Black died in 2016. Always loved his version. Katherina also did a song of her own ‘The Plans’ to show she is a talented writer. This was hopefully not the last time she drops by to play at Folk Club. I will try and be better behaved if I am on the bill Katherina.
Ralf Reifenberg is someone that John Harrison and I met at Unter der Zeder and recommended he drop by to play a song or two at Dotty’s. He enquired about it just the day before our FCB meet so didn’t have a lot of practice time. “I don’t actually play Folk Music” he apologized on Friday. It was by then too late to send him packing! Good that he stayed to play a short but excellent set though. ‘Mad World’ from Tears for Fears worked very well acoustically and with ‘Route 66’ he was guaranteed a sing-along the moment we spotted the song. Regarding the ‘ don’t play Folk Music’ – John Harrison is very fond of the quote from Louis Armstrong that “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song”. You delivered a very enjoyable Folk Music set Ralf!
A surprise appearance by John Hay, this time totally CAYU-less with a return to the meaning of life search that Mario started in the first half. No answers fom John on this one either, as the verses of his song ‘The Future’ tended to finish with a question and not an answer: “How does this end?” but a very thoughtful song on climate change from a Man whose job has provided many opportunities to hear the arguments from the very top.
Top of the bill time and It was again a pleasure to hear Lorena Manz and Gerrit Witterhold, better known, indeed increasingly known, by lovers of vocal harmony in the area, as Wandering Souls. Two excellent sets by them and you could clearly see they enjoyed the Folk Club as a place to experiment in. Their on the spot experimentation caused a bit of chaos from time to time, especially when Lorena voted to play piano – you can’t blame them though as last time they were here the duo played in the outside hockey field and no-one had tried lugging the piano down the stairs and through the tennis courts.
The sets were very much as I heard at Katherinenhof a couple of weeks ago, but that extra bit of relaxed atmosphere in Dotty’s in front of an appreciative and experiment-friendly audience made for an extra-enjoyable time for both performers and audience. I’ve heard the duo enough now to have my favourites and both were presented. ‘Part of Life’ is a song about loss and actually reflects the thoughts of our late Queen Elizabeth that “Grief is the price we pay for love”. There you are. I never thought I would quote HRH QE2 in a review. Let’s see what Charles can come up with. Certainly, there is a wind of change blowing in England’s wind with a new monarch and a new Primeminister, which fits nicely with my biggest favourite from Wandering Souls. ‘October’ is a couple of years old now, but deals with the acceptance of change – Summer into Autumn. I particularly like how the opening words turn around again at the end:
“Leaves fall down at the end of October.
Changing their colours as it gets colder.
I can’t help but wonder what it’s all about”
To quote John Harrison: One day we will be saying “Oh yes. Wandering Souls. We heard them at Bonn Folk Club when they were just starting out…” A pity that the audience size on Friday did not do justice to the music played though, and if you used to enjoy an evening of Folk music at Dotty’s in the past and are reading this – come back. The music is as good as ever!