Can you have too much of a good thing? That was the question looming large for Folk Club #130 at Dotty‘s on 2 December. Where the main guest Simon Kempston is concerned that’s a clear “no!” in my book. I could listen to the gentle melodies of Scotland’s finest troubadour all night long. It’s just that, with Bronwyn Claire Asha accompanying Simon, we already had two guest stars who could easily fill the evening and it seems that Folk Club Bonn might well be waking out of its Covid induced slumbers, as there was, like in the good old days, a long list of musicians asking to play. How to fit everyone in? What to leave out? So much music. What a nice problem to have!
John Harrison certainly put himself in the running for playing the oldest song of the night – kicking off with ‘The Snows they melt the soonest‘ which Wiki says dates back to at least 1821. He also delved into the more recent past with his own poem dealing with the death (murder) of George Floyd in May of 2020. Thematically it ran very neatly into the Bill Broonzy classic ‘Black, Brown and White‘. A brave one to sing for a white man to be sure, and I hope that the audience was familiar enough with the English language and Broonzy’s original to not misinterpret the chorus of “If you’re white, it’s alright. If you’re brown stick around. But if you’re black – oh brother, get back, get back, get back!”. From a black singer it’s clear he’s singing what he’s suffering. From a white singer though it might be misinterpreted as the thoughts of the singer himself. Nicely presented John (and Christoph on Blues harp) but it’s sort of like hearing a woman, Cait O Riordan, singing “I’m a man you don’t meet every day” on the Pogues song. it just sounds odd. Am I knit-picking? Probably. John was certainly on safer ground with the Leon Roesselson classic ‘World Turned Upside Down’. He would have been onto a winner too with ‘Danny Boy’ I’m sure – but reluctantly put a line through it on my crib-sheet for the evening. Something had to give. Detlef was right. We were in danger of singing Jock Stuart sometime in the early hours of Saturday morning otherwise.
Hans Ihnen presented two excellent songs. One very well known – ‘Merry Xmas War is Over’ and one less so – ‘Family Tree’ by Venice. It’s a song in praise of the family, celebrating how even as one generation says goodbye, another will grow to replace them. The family tree indeed. Made all the more poignant by the family background of the song’s actual writers Kipp and Pat Lennon I discovered – whose father was gunned down by a stalker when they were young children. A new song and band to my ears so thanks for that Hans.
John Hay bravely played a flamenco/rumba piece from Paco Pena (‘Herencia Latina’). I say ‘bravely’ because flamenco and cold Winter evenings don’t mix too well as players need nimble fingers (maybe why the music is ostensibly out of warmer Countries!) Nice one John, you managed it well. If you plan to play at any Christmas markets I recommend hand warmers.
Long-term December Folk-clubbers will know that Simon Kempston is not the only regular visitor at this time of year to our stage. Perhaps John Harrison knows the answer, but I suspect Gerd Müller has been presenting ‘Weihnachtsgeschichte auf Bönnsch’ for quite a while now. I certainly remember being grateful for his presence last year, when Simon was delayed in traffic and Gerd was able to entertain us. On that occasion, I even wished that the Bönnsch Christmas story was a few verses longer. This time around though we were more than adequately ‘stocked’ when it came to people appearing. If I hear the story maybe another five times I will understand almost half of it. Can you oblige for the next five Christmasses please Gerd?
White Maze has been around for some five years now as an indie-pop band and it’s always great to see such musicians willing to switch off the amps and microphones in order to play in the raw so to speak. They even sent singer Katharina Brosch on ahead (maybe to check out the Club) as she appeared on her own at Dotty’s in September. Joined this time by Mathias Mogge (Guitar), Gero Harder (drums) und Ralf Engel (bass) they played a lively and enjoyable short set with long and loud applause at the end. Deservedly so.
It’s always a pleasure to see Shay McVeigh step in front of an audience and play. He has an easy but quiet vocal style that requires the listener to listen in carefully, but has a fine nose for selecting such excellent songs that everyone is more than happy to put in the effort. Certainly, any song by John Prine begs to be listened to. In past spots Shay did an excellent ‘Sam Stone’. Tonight though Shay chooses another Prine classic ‘Hello in There’ and again it’s the highlight of his short set.
Simon Kempston first set foot on a Bonn Folk Club stage when the club was in Grauerheindorf. It was a memorable night, not just for the Club, but for Simon himself as he explained to me in a 2020 interview:
“Upon reflection, that first magical night in Graurheindorf was one of the main reasons I remained true to my path of being a professional songwriter and musician, and the relationships and friendships formed on that incredible evening have helped to steer me on my course ever since. It has, and always shall be for me, a very special venue due to the part it played in laying the foundations for my life as a musician”.
Ten years on and the love Simon has for Bonn is clearly mutual. Seats are all full well before 7 pm and Bob Marabito spends the next hour scurrying round to find chairs from the bar area for latecomers. In short, audience numbers were back to the good old, pre-Covid, days.
This time around, Simon not only brought a new CD, but a new face in charming Canadian Bronwyn Claire Asha. It’s actually very refreshing to have someone singing traditional Folk ballads at a Folk Club. That maybe sounds odd, but in my youthful (‘70’s) Folk Club going in the UK you were fairly certain to have at least one act take the stage and sing something traditional – whether it be of a poor lost love or a whaling song with finger in ear and acapella. Well Bronwyn didn’t put her finger in her ear or mention whales, but her short solo set encapsulated memories of the likes of Maddy Prior and Linda Thompson and for lovers of fine Folk Ballads I can recommend Bronwyn’s debut album ‘The Maiden’s Lament’. Sadly, she didn’t have time to span the five centuries of traditional ballads that are on the disc in her all-too-short set on Friday, but she did leave me wanting to explore more such music with her gentle melancholic voice and gliding fiddle solos. And don’t think it was all misery in the world of folk balladry in past centuries – how can you not smile at the punned title ‘Never Let a Man Steal Your Thyme’? I also enjoyed ‘When I Was a Young Girl’ which leans heavily lyrically on ‘Streets of Laredo’. A haunting yet uplifting song, and indeed set, by Bronwyn Claire Asha.
‘You Can’t Win Every Time’ is the title of his new CD, but where Bonn Folk Club is concerned, Simon Kempston does manage to win every time. Setting aside discussion of his amazing guitar playing Simon is actually a cutting-edge song lyricist. There’s none of the bravado and swagger of a Billy Bragg or a Tom Robinson in Simon’s delivery but he is every bit as adept at putting across his viewpoint on a disc. Rather like an excellent meal where you enjoy the overall taste and later discover the fine ingredients behind it, Simon sings gently and plays pleasingly – but check out those lyrical ingredients in ‘A Tale of two Unions’:
“You took our North Sea Oil. You took Willie MacRae. Built Trident on our soil, closed down our industry. Invaded Iraq in our name, near extinguished the Gaelic flame… Two Unions, one of which is dead. We’re Scottish, not British, European instead!” It is, as Simon points out tonight, ‘a dis-united kingdom’.
Imagine the biting vocals of Ewan Maccoll singing those words. Simon Kempston is more subtle but no less eloquent. ‘Laissez-faire Economy’ is a stinging attack on the arrogance of Margaret Thatcher – “When you were only seventeen, you knew everything, yet the World you hadn’t seen”.
Sometimes though, the gentle voice and soft fingerstyle guitar are playing equally soft and gentle love songs. ‘Falling’ is probably my favourite of these. So laid back it almost stops completely as Simon takes the tempo of it down. In comparison, ‘Hand on my Heart’ is an up-tempo positive love song with a jaunty, irresistible riff.
It was great to hear an older number ‘Belfast Night’ in the set, and even better that Bronwyn joined him for it. The two playing together added an extra facet to the music. A little bit of extra spice, to come back to my earlier fine restaurant dish analogy. Bronwyn even took vocals on ‘Never the Bride’ and delivered an Irish reel to change the tempo mid-set.
Two fine sets by Simon then, a pleasure discovering the new young talent that is Bronwyn Claire Ashe. Also, a lively performance from White Maze, excellent spots by Hans, Shay and the two John’s – Hay and Harrison. A Christmas Bönnsch style that had everyone laughing as if it was ‘Dinner for One’ from Gerd.
Steve Perry smiled out from a photo frame placed on the piano top. I’m sure Steve was smiling down on us from heaven too by the time ‘Jock Stuart’ was sung.