After coincidentally learning that prominent German singer-songwriter Wolfgang Niedecken was about to release a new solo album featuring English and Kölsch (a German dialect spoken in West Germany’s Cologne region) interpretations of Bob Dylan songs, I wasn’t planning to explore it. While BAP (Niedeckens BAP since September 2014), the band he founded in Cologne in 1976, has been my favorite German-singing rock group since the early ’80s, I haven’t paid much attention to Niedecken’s solo work. Still, curiosity prompted me to check out Dylanreise (Dylan journey), which dropped last Friday, March 25. To my pleasant surprise, I find Niedecken’s sixth solo album quite engaging.
Of course, I realize for non-German readers and more specifically for folks who don’t understand the Kölsch dialect, Wolfgang Niedecken is likely going to be a challenging proposition. I’m not sure whether liking Dylan’s music helps a great deal; in fact, I could see the opposite since Niedecken sounds very different from Dylan, no matter in which language he sings the maestro’s songs. The renditions are fine, but what I find most intriguing about Dylanreise are the anecdotes Niedecken shares throughout the album. In fact, it’s really more a narrated audiobook than a traditional music album.
As reported by German entertainment outlet Kulturnews, Dylanreise’s origin goes back to 2017 when Wolfgang Niedecken starred in the 5-part docu-series Bob Dylans Amerika (Bob Dylan’s America) produced for French-German cultural TV channel ARTE. In this docu-series, Niedecken traveled to the U.S. to trace key places in Dylan’s life, such as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. where Dylan had performed in August 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, or Big Pink, a house in the Woodstock, N.Y. area where the so-called basement tapes sessions had taken place in the summer of 1967.
In turn, the TV series inspired Niedecken to write a book, Wolfgang Niedecken über Bob Dylan (Wolfgang Niedecken about Bob Dylan), which appeared in March 2021. Two months earlier, the German version of the audiobook of Bob Dylan’s 2016 autobiography Chronicles had come out, narrated by Niedecken. Last but not least, Niedecken teamed up with his friend and jazz pianist, Mike Herting, for a series of concerts in German-speaking countries, billed as Niedecken liesst und singt Dylan (Niedecken reads and sings Dylan). The tour has had 40-plus shows to date and is still going on.
So what’s behind Niedecken’s obvious infatuation with Robert Zimmerman? “To me, he’s the greatest among the American songwriters,” Niedecken said in the above ARTE docu-series. “No other musician has given me a deeper insight into America’s soul, and no one else knows how to express Americans’ troubles and hopes. To many, he’s the polar star, guiding the way. Undoubtedly, without him, I wouldn’t have become a musician, and many of my songs probably wouldn’t have materialized without Dylan’s work.”
In a recent interview with regional German radio channel SR3, Niedecken framed his new album as follows: “It’s actually three journeys…The journey through my life, the journey through Dylan’s life and the 2017 journey throughout the U.S. And the tour, btw – four journeys [laughs].” Dylanreise’s 32 tracks feature 16, mostly Dylan songs and 16 narrated anecdotes, which translate into a total running time of two hours and 14 minutes. That’s pretty heavy, but I found it a worthwhile listening experience. Niedecken is a decent narrator.
Throughout his entire career, in addition to his own tunes, Niedecken has performed Dylan songs. In fact, before founding BAP in 1976, he had gained some local popularity in Cologne as “Bob Dylan of the South Town.” Typically, his versions were performed in the Kölsch dialect, something he continued with BAP. On Dylanreise, there’s a mix of all-English, all-Kölsch and mixed English-Kölsch renditions. The Times They Are a-Changin’ is one of five all-English versions. It’s the title track of Dylan’s third studio album from January 1964.
“I used to play bass in a student band since I adored Paul McCartney,” Niedecken told SR3 during the above interview. “The vocalist of our band needed to pass high school graduation. So he showed up to his final gig…and brought along the single ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. He had also already written down the lyrics. And we listened to it and this was something quite different (from The Beatles)…And suddenly, it was like lightning had struck. What the hell is he writing about? What do all these words mean? And all these metaphors, ‘Napoleon in rags’…All I knew is that was something I found much more exciting than playing bass and singing harmless lyrics. That same night, I told my friend Heiden, ‘ Heiden, you know what, you have to play bass now. I’m going to sing and write lyrics, just like the dude with the sunglasses.”
From Niedecken’s website: When we got to Woodstock as part of our Dylan journey, among others, we paid a visit to “Big Pink” in the forests of West-Saugerties. A nondescript wooden house painted in pick where rock & roll history was written when Dylan and his band [The Band – CMM] recorded countless demos there in 1967, some of which subsequently appeared under the title “Basement Tapes”. There I met with guitarist and vocalist Happy Traum, who four years later had assisted Dylan to re-record “Goin Nowhere” for his second greatest hits album, to record this song for our documentary. Here’s Du Jehs Nirjendwo Hin (You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere), a song Dylan wrote in Woodstock in 1967, which first appeared on the aforementioned compilation Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II
Before wrapping up this review with another rendition of a Dylan song, I’d like to recap one of my favorite anecdotes Niedecken tells: his eye-to-eye encounter with the maestro. In April 2009, on behalf of German guitar maker Duisenberg, Niedecken was invited to hand Dylan a lap steel he had ordered from the company. After a show in the German city of Saarbruecken, Niedecken was brought backstage and told to wait for Dylan there, all by himself. Finally, Dylan showed up, all by himself as well. He approached Niedecken smiling and with one fist raised.
“‘What’s that supposed to mean?,’ I was asking myself before realizing at the last second it evidently was meant to be a ghetto fist,” Niedecken recalls. “Apparently, I had not been the only person who had shaken his hand too firmly when Wim Wenders [the film director – CMM] who had known Dylan from the ’70s introduced me to him, and obviously I had grabbed his hand a little bit too firmly, leading him to wince…When I mentioned Wim’s name, he was like, ‘yeah, sure.’ And then the time had already come to hand over the guitar.”
“I can no longer remember what he was saying. I only recall how fascinated he was when removing the instrument from the case and looking at it from all sides. Like a small boy who finds an engine underneath the Christmas tree for his toy train – a moving moment I didn’t want to ruin under any circumstances with an unnecessary question or any sentence he presumably had heard a million times. Sure, I’d like to let him know he has significantly impacted my life and thank him for that. But, as I said, I would have ruined this moment and it wasn’t worth it. Eventually, he told me he had a small guitar amp on his tour bus where he would hook up the instrument right away. That same night they would travel to Paris. As such, he would have enough time to spend with the lap steel. Okay, one last ghetto fist, ‘thanks, take care,’ and that was it.”
Here’s Fuer Immer Jung (Forever Young). Recorded in 1973, the tune first appeared in two versions (one slow, one fast) on Dylan’s 14th studio album Planet Waves from January 1974.
Here’s the link to Dylanreise on Spotify.
Sources: Wikipedia; Kulturnews; SR3; Niedeckens BAP website; YouTube; Spotify