Songs that matter – Marcus Schinkel & Johannes Kuchta with Jörg Lange at Kleines Theater

‘Songs That Matter’. That’s a pretty heavy tag to put on a concert. We all have songs that ‘matter’ personally to us of course, but songs that matter generally? that’s a pretty tall order to fit into one evening. I take off my metaphorical hat then to Marcus Schinkel (keyboards), Johannes Kuchta (vocals, percussion) who, together with introductions by journalist Jörg Lange had a good stab at narrowing down the field. So, from the fifty or so songs that were shortlisted between them, which ones made it to the final presentation? Read on…

Well, actually the trio cheated a little bit. There were actually twelve songs played on the night, but that’s still an impressive bit of ‘pruning’ from the long list of contenders. What makes a particular song ‘important’ anyway? Wolfgand Niedecken was quoted with an answer, but again, we all have different answers. On the subject of BAP’s enigmatic frontman, I would have liked to see ‘Verdammt Lang Her’ in the selection or ‘Kristallnacht’. Niedecken himself would probably ask where was ‘Blowing in the Wind‘? Or indeed Dylan in general? Probably THE writer of modern songs that matter.

‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ certainly carries social weight. Jörg Lange did a good job of following the song history from Bob Geldof’s being inspired after hearing of a 1979 school shooting in San Diego explained away by the perpetrator as simply because “I don’t like Mondays”. Many years later Geldof regretted writing the song because it made Brenda Spencer famous, whilst Spencer herself could not even remember saying those famous words, citing instead drugs and sexual abuse from her father as the cause of her actions.

When it worked then, the idea of discussing each song/songwriter beforehand was a good one. Not all of the songs chosen warranted such a detailed analysis though. Udo Lindenberg certainly contributed to Germans appreciating their own language in Pop/Rock, but the choice of ‘Nimm dir das Leben’ instead of ‘Cello’ for example was surprising, and Lindenberg’s life history of alternate pop hits and drug/alcohol misses every year took a good deal longer to tell than it did the song to sing. Also, I have to admit I would have loved to have heard where Marcus Schinkel took ‘Cello’ musically. Then again, ‘Mädchen aus Ost Berlin’ is, for me, with its tale of a City/Country divided, Lindenberg’s ‘Important’ song.

Maybe more analysis of the songs and less of the singers? Sometimes of course the two intertwine. What matters most to me about ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ is that it brought Folk music into the Pop charts. Paul Simon was traveling around the folk circuit in London long before he and Art Garfunkel created the duo Tom & Jerry.

So, enough about the background notes; What about the musical notes? Like most of the audience, I suspect my attendance was primarily to hear A: Which songs were ‘important’ on the night and B: how the talented Messrs Schinkel and Kuchta interpreted them. An early success by the duo was certainly Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’. “The chord structure, the melodies, the time changes, it’s got drama written all over it.” was how Elton John described the song and the pared-down version tonight had all of that.

You can’t argue with some of the choices as important. Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ for example. As Lange pointed out, this cried out for the white piano signifying Good and Peace. What would have happened to it if a lesser character than John Lennon had submitted to the will of wall-of-sound Man Phil Spector’s ideas? I shudder to think. Perfect material for Kuchta and the black piano of Mr Schinkel.

Also perfect material for Bonn’s Wizard of the keys was Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’. The grin on Marcus Schinkel’s face when he gets to play around with sound-effects is in itself always a joy to behold, and on this one he really was like a small child in a toyshop. Wonderful stuff indeed.

U2’s ‘With or Without You’ is a song that matters? I’m not a Bono fan but that’s personal taste of course. Anyway, it was beautifully sung by Johannes Kuchta and I just love to watch on numbers like this how he runs his arms and hands slowly around as he sings as if almost forming his version on a potters wheel. Each note is carefully weighted and chosen. Great to photograph too.

Kuchta is also right on the mark vocally when addressing Peter Gabriel’s ‘Don’t Give Up’; and indeed he needed to be since he was also covering Kate Bush’s part of the duet from 1986. It’s tale of an unemployed man’s (Gabriel) desperation and the answering call to “Don’t Give Up” (Bush) is certainly one that has mattered to many. I read online a description that “This song has probably saved more lives than any other song ever written. Stunningly beautiful”. Right on both accounts whoever you are ‘Fazertace6837’. Kudos to Johannes too for not giving up on Kate’s famously high vocal style. You went a lot closer than many would dare to attempt.

I did enjoy the guest participation of Matthias Höhn on Uileann pipes during the evening and on ‘You’ve got a Friend’ which took off as soon as Christian Padberg aka ‘Dad’s Phonkey’ vamped it up with his unique blend of vocalization meets rhythm section in one instrument – his own mouth. Marvelous.

The encore of ‘Gute Nacht Freunde’ was very probably the best version I’ve yet heard, and it was a featured number to close the Unter Der Zeder shows for a whole season, so I have heard it quite a bit. The song’s success tonight was down I suspect to the fact that it requires a very sensitive vocal and a fine-feel for the melody. I can’t think of a more perfect pair to present it than this duo on the Kleines Theatre stage.

So what would I have liked to hear this evening? Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’? John Miles’ ”Music’? ‘Candle in the Wind’? I would have loved to hear Marcus and Johanne’s take on ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Songs that have a message like Johnny Cash singing ‘Ira Hayes’ or Dylan’s ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till‘ or Billie Holiday’s chilling ‘Strange Fruit’. Springsteen’s often misunderstood ‘Born in the USA’… A wonderful evening and even better for the intimate atmosphere inside the Theatre. Thanks to Marcus, Johannes, Jörg and organizers Kukug eV. Hopefully, there will be a Part 2 sometime.

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