Merzig, Germany November 2011

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Merzig, 4th November 2011

There's no place like home! Not that a hardcore fan minds travelling up and down the country, or even crossing borders, to see The Dubliners perform – as a dear friend remarked here only recently. And it's always a great pleasure to meet other fellow fans and experience other venues in other places. Nevertheless – how wonderful when once in a while the lads come to your hometown, and give a concert (almost) on your own doorstep.
Having said that, I have to admit that the fans in this part of Germany have no reason to complain these days. Whereas in the past The Dubliners gave only sporadic concerts in or near the Landkreis (administrative district) Merzig-Wadern, with only one exception there's been a gig in this area every year since 2007. A fact which we owe to the Kulturzentrum Villa Fuchs, a cultural centre with headquarters in the listed historic building of the same name in Merzig, but which organises a wide range of events in all towns and municipalities of the district. 

Wonderful that the fans here in Merzig-Wadern – tucked away in southwest Germany on the borders to France and Luxembourg, and with the lowest population density of all districts of the Saarland – should have such luck every year. Wonderful – but perhaps no wonder? Apart from the fact that those responsible at the Villa Fuchs always aim to engage only first-class artists, The Dubliners have a very big fan following here – after all, this year's concert was sold out weeks in advance. But there's also a third, less prosaic aspect. Due to its rural character, with extensive forest and agricultural areas, a nature reserve and miles of hiking trails, Merzig-Wadern is known as the Saarland's "Grüner Kreis" (green district). What could be a more appropriate place than this for the musical embassadors from the "Grüne Insel" (Emerald Isle), and hardly surprising if they feel almost at home here. Home from home, as it were!

For the second time the cultural centre chose the Stadthalle Merzig as venue, and as in 2008 we had front row seats. But there was one small flaw this year. The front section of the stage – adjustable in height to create an orchestra pit if necessary – had been lowered slightly for this concert. It was obvious that The Dubliners would be taking up their positions behind this lower part, and therefore much further from the front row than expected. At first sight – and especially after having experienced the intimacy of the Metropol in Vienna – quite a disappointment!

But it was forgotten the very moment the five appeared on stage and struck up their opening reels! It is indeed phenomenal – only a few bars of "Fermoy Lassies" and you're caught under that spell. There is something wonderful and magical in this music that transports you into another world and obliterates any negative thoughts or feelings you may have harboured. At least for a few hours you're "on cloud nine". And it makes no difference whatsoever whether it's your first gig of the year – or your fifth!

In the first set of the concert in the Stadthalle, The Dubliners performed primarily the old favourites that the fans always expect – and the audience loved Seán's "Black Velvet Band" and Patsy's "Rare Auld Times", to name but two of the songs. Not to forget Barney's love song for young and old, rewarded as ever with tremendous applause and cheering. As were the much-loved tunes "The Belfast Hornpipe" and "a little bit schneller" (to quote John Sheahan) "The Swallow's Tail". Two of my own personal highlights of the first set were Seán's beautiful version of "Fáinne Geal An Lae", (Dawning Of The Day) sung to the slow air of the same name from Ireland's 17th century composer Thomas Connellan, and Patsy's emotive rendition of Phil Coulter's ode to his beloved but changed and troubled Derry.

If there happened to be the odd one or two visitors in the Stadthalle who didn't love Barney McKenna already, they too were converted as, after reminiscing about Irish music in general and his own early encounter with music in particular, he picked up his squeeze box for his Irish "solo" – together with the guitar virtuoso Eamonn Campbell of course! No matter where The Dubliners perform, Barney always includes some tune in his melodeon medley that captures his audience, something characteristic of the area or at least of the country – in Merzig it was first the popular children's song "Mein Hut Der Hat Drei Ecken" (my hat it has three corners), followed by the "Haushammer Schuhplattler" (not at all a dance characteristic of this particular part of Germany, but a very well-known tune here just the same). And he rounded up this wonderful medley with the Irish "Cork Hornpipe", before he exchanged melodeon for banjo and he and Eamonn delighted the fans with their brilliant selection of reels.

There are two songs I still remember vividly from the 2008 concert in Merzig. One was "The Hens' March To The Midden", which literally brought the front row to tears (of laughter) back then. The other was the song which of late always accompanies the audience to the merchandise stand – and the lads to the teapot! Well, there were no hens in Merzig this year, but once again Behan's "Auld Triangle", and this year's rendition was as equally impressive and awesome as the last time I heard it in the Stadthalle. The audience in Merzig wasn't exactly a quiet one (Barney called out "prost!" several times during the evening as the clattering of bottles and glasses reached him from the back rows) but you could have heard a pin drop in the Stadthalle as Patsy took the lead in the Dubs' a cappella choir. And for a moment I almost wished I wasn't sitting in the front row, but standing outside the walls of the Stadthalle listening to the jingle jangle echoing all along the banks of the River Saar. 

The Dubliners, after "jede Menge Tee" (tea aplenty) – if we are to believe Seán! – had one or two surprises in store for us for the second set. Patsy announced a song that the fans hadn't heard live for donkey's years, a special request from their sound engineer. Now, I completely forgot to ask Tom O'Brien if he'd had such a bad experience in Merzig, that he had especially asked to hear "A Pub With No Beer" here. Certainly food for thought, but on the other hand, with several breweries in and near the Saarland, and a small local one just a stone's throw away from the venue on the opposite bank of the river, it seems highly unlikely! Anyway, the audience loved it!

Seán introduced a beautiful song in the second set that was new to The Dubliners' repertoire, the emotive ballad of an Irish emigrant's poignant "farewell to the land of his youth" before setting sail to find a new home on "The Shores Of Amerikay".

Barney's second song of the evening was a sea shanty, not at all a new one to the fans, but to quote himself "it's a while since I sang it". And with the vocal support of the audience, who heaved and hauled enthusiastically, we set sail to round Cape Horn, bound for "South Australia".
As a tribute to those who lost their lives in Norway on that tragic day in July, John played for us in Merzig his beautiful tune "Farewell To Harstad". "Feathered Gael", another of John's own compositions ("are you ready for marching?") followed, before they rounded up this medley with the lively "Jackie Coleman's Reel".

Something most unusual happened towards the end of the second set. John, Seán and Patsy each pulled up a chair between Barney and Eamonn, and for a moment I was quite perplexed! Well, what followed was brilliant, and probably one of the best renditions of their well-known, often played and much-loved selection of reels that I have ever heard. And judging by the thunderous applause and cheering at the end of "Cooley's", "The Dawn" and "The Mullingar Races", the rest of the audience shared my opinion!

It is no secret that Seán speaks excellent German, and in Merzig he demonstrated this more than once. But he capped it all at the end of the concert as he told us what a good time they'd had in the Stadthalle, thanking the audience for being such a kind one: "Barmherzig in Merzig" (which rhymes of course in German). Needless to say, the "Merciful in Merzig" loved it!

Of course there were standing ovations, thunderous applause and the call for more from the 700 audibly and visibly very happy visitors in the Stadthalle. And in the meantime it's official – The Dubliners will be back in Merzig-Wadern next year! It goes without saying that their fans here in the Saarland's "green district" are looking forward to welcoming "home" those five musical embassadors from the Emerald Isle when they return in November 2012 to celebrate with us their 50th anniversary.

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