Stephen Pennell watches another night of Birmingham musical magic.
Call Me Unique and Friends,
Every now and again I have a night out in Birmingham that I know I’ll never forget, and Friday’s launch party for Call Me Unique’s new EP Urban Gypsy II was one of them. I knew it would be good – one glance at the line-up told me that – and my eagerness to get started meant my son Tyler and I were enjoying the heavy rock and hospitality at Subside a good couple of hours before the gig itself. But it took longer than a Led Zeppelin guitar solo to get served, so it was lucky we allowed plenty of time. “Is it because I’m a Mod?” I asked the long-haired tattooed barman. “No,” he said, looking me up and down with barely-concealed contempt. “I’m just busy”.
The band in there (sound of Slipknot, look of the Inbetweeners) weren’t really my thing, so I hastily rearranged the meet with my mate Lee to the altogether more civilised surrounds of the Old Crown, where we sank a couple of pints of Peaky Blinder IPA and headed for the venue, just round the corner in Lower Trinity Street.
What a vibe! Digbeth Dining Club at Spotlight was heaving as always, and though the aromas drifting into the courtyard of Mama Roux’s were very tempting, the mouth-watering on-stage menu at the gig ensured that no amount of pulled pork and dirty burgers could drag me away.
The first half of the show consisted of Call Me Unique and her incredibly tight band performing her first EP, aided and abetted by a host of talented local artists. On haunting opener The Stranger, Unique was joined by rappers Trademark Blud and The Boy October, the first two links in a chain of collaborators with not a single weak link.
Next up the sensual tones of Kezia Soul and Simon Jnr turned up the heat and passion on slow burner Here, a song that is already so sexy it should come with an 18 certificate.
Then came two of Birmingham’s (or anywhere’s really) most accomplished rappers. RTKAL, who gave probably the best performance I’ve ever heard on Radio 1xtra’s Fire in The Booth, and Lady Sanity. If she were to appear on Charlie Sloth’s show, he would be well advised to have the actual fire brigade on stand by. They joined Unique for Urban Gypsy, the title track of her first EP, and as the two of them went bar for blistering bar the appreciative crowd understandably began to get really hyped.
Jugganaut and MalikMD7 did absolutely nothing to calm the mood as they put their own slant on the gritty and uncompromising Bombs and Wars. It was the first time I’d heard Jugganaut but it won’t be the last. He combined the big, authoritative voice of a reanimated Biggie Smalls with the energy of Beanie Man. Malik reprised his pivotal performance in the recorded version of the song with even more fire and skill.
Thankfully for the old Mod in the audience, things calmed down as the first half of the show was brought to a close by the raw emotion of Sholow, backed by the soaring falsetto of local hero (and the new EP’s producer) Ed Geater and what I expected to be the beautifully delicate voice I know and love from Affie Jam’s recorded output. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that voice transformed into a soulful tour de force in a live setting, and no sooner had I got my breath back than she took it away again. Despite the hours I’ve enjoyed listening to her on Soundcloud, I really didn’t know she had that in her locker.
After a short interval, Call Me Unique resigned her first-half role as convivial host coaxing and cajoling all these wonderful performances from her mates and took centre-stage. After opening with a storming cover of Genie In A Bottle the focus shifted to the new EP. Following the lovely folk-tinged Birds, she showed off her rapping credentials on The Only Girl In Manville, cleverly co-opting the chorus from Grandmaster Flash’s The Message, and followed this up with a fantastic version of Destiny’s Child hit Say My Name, featuring the sultry vocals of jazz chanteuse Tina Amana ripping it up alongside the headliner.
The band really excelled on this, and the New Orleans theme of the venue was a perfect setting for the funkiest combo this side of the Big Easy. The final guest of the second half was Leanne Louise, who’s rich, bluesy voice was used to stunning effect on H###tag,
After the obligatory, crowd-pleasing outing of celebratory anthem The Wife, it was back to the new stuff. Lead single from the EP, Shoulda, is an absolute banger, the dark lyrics carried along by a relentless, driving beat. The piece de resistance though is both the EP and the show’s closer Ashon, a fragile and beautiful paean to Unique’s unborn son who tragically passed away, that through it’s sheer humanity somehow turns out to be the most life-affirming moment of the show.
The whole evening was a showcase for the incredible amount of accomplished artists we are truly blessed to have right here on our doorstep in Birmingham. I was lucky enough to meet lots of them on the night, as well as Unique’s lovely family, and their modesty and humility was as obvious as their talent. If some of the names are new to you, please check them out on soundcloud, YouTube and the rest. If you do, maybe you’ll be there next time. You won’t regret it.