BELFAST TO BERLIN
It was like God was twisting out the water from a wet, grey flannel blanket the day that I arrived in Belfast. February 25th, 2010. The good news was that The Crown Bar was directly across the street from my hotel.
I had read about The Crown in one of my favorite novels, “Gospel” by Wilton Barnhardt, and the old place certainly lived up to its convivial, venerable hype and it might almost live up to its claim that it is, as their t-shirt declares, ‘The Best Bar In The World’. Since the bar is on The National Trust, there is no television, musak or video games allowed within its walls. Bottles are stored at room temperature as no refrigerators are welcome. But, conversation is king.
Within minutes of my arrival, I had been greeted by a group of extremely friendly and loquacious local regulars who insisted on buying me pints of Guinness and regaling me with tales of the pub and of Belfast, in general. Sure enough, one fellow who claimed to be a member of the Real IRA tried to educate me about the parallel philosophies of The Rebels Of Northern Ireland, as he called them, and The Rebels Of The American Confederacy. I nodded a lot and said nothing…just sipped.
I was in the city of Van Morrison and The Grand Opera House, setting for my favorite live album of his, was cater corner, right across the street. Pretty soon, amidst the background noise of chatter, my internal jukebox was playing, “We were born before the wind, also younger than the sun, ere the bonny boat was won, as we sailed into the mystic.” A misty mystic by that time.
The next morning I moved downtown to Madison’s Hotel, home plate for the 6th Guinness Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival and spent a very satisfying couple days there. Colin Magee, who heads the fest, couldn’t have been more welcoming and plugged me in with some of the up and coming writer/performers who were attending. I interviewed some for my CMR Nashville radio show which will air soon.
Some of the young turks with whom I shared the stage were New York’s Colin McGrath, Cork, Ireland’s Nicole Maquire and Belfast’s own roots band extraordinaire, Jackson Cage, fronted by a brilliant, young songwriter named Declan Doherty.
Some of the stars in the song writing world who also appeared were folk icon Nanci Griffith, Ralph McTell (Streets Of London), Pam Rose (I’ll Still Be Loving You) and Mick Hanly (Past The Point Of Rescue). Famous Country Music daughters Carlene Carter and Holly Williams also wooed the fans with some killer shows as well.If you’re ever in Europe toward the end of February and you happen to love fabulous, hand crafted music, do yourself a favor and buy a ticket to Belfast. You will love the songwriters’ festival there.
After Belfast, I shot down to Dublin and then Paris for a few days before flying up to Berlin for nine days. I had not been back to Berlin for twenty years and couldn’t believe the change that has come over that town. I had lived there for several months right after The Wall had come down and found myself lost in the ways that Berlin had shifted.
‘East Is West’ is the new call phrase there. The old West Berlin, where I used to live, is now a bit dusty and in need of some sprucing up while the East, which was literally falling down in 1990, is gleaming and glittering now. It is where the action is…where the money is. There is now a Starbucks in the shadow of The Brandenburg Gate. Unbelievable
Potsdamer Platz, which was a grassy field between the two walls when I lived there, now looks like the central plaza of a brand new western city. Imagine Atlanta, Dallas or Houston. Alexanderplatz, now known to home towners as The Alex, is alive and hopping well into the night with clubs, restaurants, ritzy hotels and boutiques. When I lived there it was a crumbling mess of depressing Soviet style office buildings and pre-fab housing projects. But, I was there to play my tunes. Thanks to the invitation of my good friends, Kai Ulatowski and Iris Paesch, I played at their country music festival, The Berlin Country Messe. They have a separate songwriters stage, called The Bluebird Stage, set up with the compound and I played there three consecutive nights. Heard some cool music and managed to sell some records.
I also played a pub there that I had not played in twenty years, The Celtic Cottage, which was just down the street from my old apartment. No one had told me but they don’t allow P.A. systems in there anymore so I played my sets without a sound system. My voice was shot by the end of the second set so I invited my old friend, Christoph Deschner,
and some new friends, John Vaughan, an American who has lived in Berlin for a number of years and, my new Norwegian pals, Ottar Johansen and Tore Andersen, up to do a few numbers. It was totally a blast.
Having seen Berlin and Belfast, both now, it seems to me an interesting reality how cities can be divided then reunited up to a point. The old scars never really heal completely but life can go on and new beauty and prosperity can be forged together. I saw that change hurts but stagnation kills. If those two worn torn cities can get it together, so to speak, then the rest of us have little to whine about and a lot to learn.
Belfast to Berlin…sounds like a good folk song, doesn’t it?