A delightful return to the stage in Germany, Worms 16th to 17th June 2017

In summer 2016, a representative of the Worms-based Jazz and Joy Festival attended the St Albans Folk Day and identified a number of bands and musicians to invite to Worms the following summer. The invitation to perform on the opening night of the festival was part of celebrations to commemorate 60 years of Städtepartnerschaft or town-twinning between the cities of St Albans and Worms. WE were fortunate to be amongst the other invitees along with the splendid St Albans trio Said the Maiden, (Hannah Elizabeth, Jess Distill and Kathy Pilkington) and a band formed for the occasion, Country Cousins starring local folk legends Alison Macfarlane, Bill Redway, Ross Scrivener and Dan Raza. This is the story of our weekend in Germany

A 5 o'clock start is quite a normal time for setting off to a gig. Most times it is 5 p.m. but this time it was 5 a.m. and were off to Heathrow to catch a flight to Frankfurt before moving on to Worms to play a concert with other local musicians from the St Albans area. Way above and beyond the call of duty, Jane, had volunteered to get up early and deliver us to the airport at that ungodly hour which, with the motorway mercifully free of traffic, she duly did.

Fellow musicians will well appreciate that airline instrument policies are always a worry and this trip was no exception; ‘what must you put in the hold’, ‘what can you carry on board ’, is that instrument to big, too heavy, etc etc? The last thing any musician wants is to be stopped at the airport knowing that he or she has to get to somewhere where an audience will be waiting – you need your instruments and you can’t miss the flight.

We had chosen a particular airline for what looked like its more flexible instrument policy and I'm pleased to report there were no hiccups on the way out. It all went very smoothly and, bedecked with a zillion ‘Fragile’ and ‘Zerbrechlich’ stickers on them, the instruments arrived safe and sound at the end of the flight, in Frankfurt.

Frankfurt airport is very familiar territory for Rob and with his on-hand knowledge we sailed through the airport, found one of the (far too) scarce ticket dispensing machines and mounted the train to Worms, changing at Mainz. However, just when it was all going so smoothly, the Deutsche Bahn laid on a special treat on this last leg of the journey to make us both feel at home, namely, a problem on the line and a replacement bus service. Not surprisingly, given replacement buses aren’t waiting around the nearest corner just in case, this took a fair while to get organised and Rob and I were treated to a lengthy view over the Rhine in teh sunshine from the bus stop outside Nierstein railway station. Thankfully, we weren’t under any time constraints so the eventual replacement bus service ended up providing us with a delightful tour of the local wine growing villages; very pretty indeed.

Once we arrived in Worms we made our way over to the hotel where all the musicians were being billeted for the weekend. Still with a little time available, after checking into the hotel, we strolled back into town for a look around and a bite to eat. Once spotted on the menu, it just had to be schnitzel.

Replete, we then returned to the hotel for a tune up and a bit of a rest and rehearsal before meeting up with the other St Albans musicians and being taken by car to the venue.

It was a splendid summer's evening and much of the old town of Worms had been sealed off in preparation for the Jazz and Joy Festival. We were first taken with the other musicians to see the stage and then directed to possibly the best set of green rooms ever. Rob and Ihad our own fridge full of beer (which we eyed for later as we don't drink before playing), tokens for food and drink from around the festival site, plenty of fruit, naughty snacks, plus a dining table and armchairs. The three armchairs certainly looked tempting for a snooze but there was work to be done.

After the thoroughly professional sound checks were completed, the concert began almost immediately. By this time an audience of between 150 and 200 had assembled in a delightful plaza outside the historic Youth Hostel, standing and sitting around tables enjoying beers and snacks.

The Country Cousins went on first and delivered an excellent set containing self-penned material by Dan Raza, traditional material from around the UK and New Zealand, and they finished with Ross Scrivener’s anthemic, ‘Let’s Work Together’, which captured the mood of mutual interest and respect between peoples and soon had the crowd clapping and swaying. They left the stage to a major and lengthy round of applause.

The Country Cousins were then followed onto the stage by Said the Maiden who delivered a classy set with their trademark close harmonies and superb musicality. Kathy introduced the set in German and, as with Alison’s introduction for the Country Cousins, this was met with appreciation from the highly engaged crowd. As with the Country Cousins, Said the Maiden also left the stage to loud, appreciative and well-deserved applause.

We then took to the stage. We were a little concerned that, with an opening concert for the jazz festival kicking off on a nearby stage (Matt Bianco & New Cool Collective), we might get some sound bleed into our set. However, perhaps protected by the bulk of the Youth Hostel building behind us, this was avoided and we were able to deliver an untroubled performance. Given the circumstances, we deliberately kept the set upbeat and probably included more traditional material than our usual shows, and it seemed to pay off. It was a delight to see people smiling and dancing. Like Alison and Kathy before him, Rob introduced both us and our songs, especially Navajos & Pirates, to the audience in German and they were most appreciative of him doing so.

From the kindness of people coming up to us afterwards and saying how much they had enjoyed the show (and the very healthy CD sales that followed) it certainly seemed as though the audience had enjoyed what we had done.

Many thanks to all the dignitaries from the St Albans town-twinning committee for coming to support all of the musicians on the evening of the concert. Their kind words after the show were very much appreciated

Now that we had done what we came to do, we could relax and have a glass of beer (or three). Good draught beer and merguez sausages were very much enjoyed as were a couple of the beers from the fridge - sadly not including the two that I managed to drop and smash on the green room floor. Thanks to Said the Maiden and the local hostel staff who helped me clean up.
Rather than take an early bus home to the hotel, most of the musicians stopped on and had a few beers. We all then walked back together to the hotel on what was a pleasant and balmy night. What a pity it was that one of our number accidently tripped over the concrete paving stones holding down a canvas awning and injured himself quite badly. Thankfully, he was attended to quickly by five members of the German Red Cross and we were soon on our way.

While some of the musicians had a last snifter in the hotel bar, Rob and I disappeared off to our rooms, happy but decidedly cream crackered.

The following day, Saturday 17th June, musicians duties switched from the Jazz and Joy Festival to the more formal aspects of commemorating the 60th anniversary of the town-twinning between St Albans and Worms.

Most of us were picked up after a leisurely breakfast and taken, with instruments, out to the Herrnsheim Castle, a beautiful historic building amongst the vineyards on the edge of Worms. Having led a morning vocal workshop at a local school, Said the Maiden travelled separately and joined us there.

This was a formal occasion and the musicians were there to punctuate the speeches and presentations with a little music. Said the Maiden started proceedings with a beautiful three part a cappella rendition of The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood, the beautiful poem written by Richard Fariña, set to Irish air My Lagan Love, and most memorably recorded in the UK by Sandy Denny.

Various speeches from senior municipal figures from both cities followed. They touched upon the history of the partnership and the hard work that individuals from both cities had been doing to ensure the relationship was maintained and developed. We then performed our version of the Scottish song of longstanding amity, Time Wears Awa’.

Further speeches, thank yous, an exchange of presents and a historic signing process then took place before the Country Cousins closed the event by reprising Ross Scrivener’s anthem from the night before, Let’s Work Together.

Canapés and drinks followed. However, Rob and I couldn’t indulge as we had our own workshop to present back in town in the early afternoon at the stunning new Wormser Kulturzentrum.
Two of the local dignitaries present at Herrnsheim very kindly gave us a lift, with our instruments, to the new culture centre where two young women were waiting to guide us to our studio for the workshop.

The workshop was small in participant numbers but big in enthusiasm. A small number of local musicians and observers came along to enjoy the flavour of playing and listening to music from around the celtic world. Rob expertly took them through some Asturian, Scots and Irish tunes and, given a demonstrable interest in the participants for songs, we also worked through the Irish classics, The Verdant Braes of Screen and The Maid of Culmore. The particiapnts really enjoyed the hour and quarter we spent together while a journalist and photographer from the local Wormser Zeitung newspaper captured the essence of the workshop in words and pictures for the local community. Everyone went away happy.

So, coming close to the end of our visit, we had one last musical event to join, namely, a session in a nearby park outside the historic Cafe Pinel. Rob joined the session while I returned quickly to the hotel and picked up our suitcase before joining everyone. Alison had printed up some leaflets to explain to those sitting at the nearby cafe tables that, across the UK that day there were gatherings assembling in The Great Get Together, to remember the life and words of murdered British MP, Jo Cox, who had said in her maiden speech to Parliament that “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us’ – a fitting sentiment for the weekend in general.

The session rolled around the table with everyone joining in on everyone else’s choruses. Passers-by stopped to listen and take in the music and cafe customers sat around and enjoyed the session with evident pleasure.

Then, as the afternoon wore on, it was time for Rob, I and fellow musician Dan Raza to make our way to the train station to again join the queue for the ticket machine rarer than hen’s teeth, and set off home.

It was a very straightforward journey home and no mishaps or incidents to report. The train to Mainz filled up with people dressed entirely in white who then, in high spirits, got off at Russelheim for what seems to have been a big dance party. Other than that, there was nothing of note to report. The train was now half empty, Frankfurt airport was half empty and, mercifully, the flight back to Heathrow was half empty; all very civilized. Then it was a 30 minute car journey home and a last beer before bed.

Many thanks to David Maier, Katharina Kaiser and their respective teams at the Jazz & Joy Festival for the invitation to us to join the event and also for looking after us so well while we were in Worms. Similarly, thanks go to Hubert Listmann and all those involved in both Worms and St Albans with the important town twinning initiative, for facilitating our involvement in both the festival and the formal commemoration event for the 60th anniversary of the relationship between the two cities. Finally, thanks to all of our fellow musicians and workshop participants who were such great company over the weekend. We wish them all every success with their musical ventures A final especial thank you must go to Alison Macfarlane not only for her hard work on this particular weekend but her ceaseless endeavour to promote and encourage folk music in St Albans. We all owe her a major debt.