Stephen Pennell watches more local heroes.
It’s quite a challenge to keep up with the Birmingham music scene these days. I’ve already given up on the last week before Christmas – shopping and preparations dictate that I have to pick only two from Swim Deep, The New Consistent, Karkosa, The Clause, UB40, The Wonder Stuff and The Twang, meaning I have to miss six… (SIX!) of them.
And even on this seemingly insignificant November weekend, I’m spoiled for choice, as Ivory Wave and Call Me Unique pick the same night to bring their particular brands of magic to Digbeth. Not to worry, I have the stage times and a plan. At 7.15 I’m at the o2 Institute, chatting to Ben Ramsay from The New Consistent and watching his mates 11 57 opening the Ivory Wave show with a bang.
They’ve been the talk of the town since their live debut at the Sonic Gun weekender this summer, and their huge potential is hinted at as squalling lead guitar is welded onto a bluesy, heavy early Zeppelin-style beat on The Way of the Bear, while their first single Would I Lose is an accomplished indie-punk party-piece. They turn in a highly promising and versatile performance and look completely at home on such a huge stage for their third (I think) gig.
As they leave, so do I, dashing round the corner hoping to catch a vibe off Call Me Unique, who is hosting her monthly show, the CMU Experience, at Mama Roux’s in Lower Trinity Street. Frustratingly, she hasn’t started yet, but there’s time for a quick chat and a Digbeth Dining Club burger from Flying Cows on my flying visit.
On the way back to the Institute, I have another pit-stop at the Big Bull’s Head, where DJ Steve Sainy is spinning all kinds of Northern Soul loveliness. A few of my pals are in the house and I’m tempted to stay, but I’m intrigued by the hype surrounding Ivory Wave and though I’m not their biggest fan, I want to give them a chance to win me over.
I get back just in time to see them take the stage to a heroes’ welcome, fully justified by opening track The Middle, built around a lament that strikes a familiar chord with anyone works hard and plays harder: “Now I know why I’m feeling so low/the nights go fast and the days go slow”.
Birmingham is blessed with a plethora of charismatic frontmen at the minute (Pearce Macca of The Clause and Connor Hill from The Novus are prime examples), but band leaders with the sheer, unadulterated swagger of George Johnson are rare as hen’s teeth, and by the time he’s asserting “There’s gold in me/one day you’ll see”, he’s already preaching to the choir.
Uptown, the lead single from their new Dream Nights EP, is a standard, uplifting Ivory Wave tune – it just happens to be their best one – but Cool Kids and Weigh Me Down aren’t far behind in the anthemic, singalong stakes. Trust me, these boys know how to construct a chorus.
The melancholic beginning of Young Blood signals a welcome breather for the mosh-pit, but respite is short lived and we’re soon back in absolute limbs territory as Separate Beat gets an airing. The band wear their Britpop heart on their sleeve on this one, but George wittily pre-empts any lazy criticism – “I know you/you know me/it sounds like something from the mid-nineties”.
They finish with the euphoric Club, and it’s scenes on toast as they are roared off-stage even more enthusiastically than they were roared on. They occasionally remind me of a certain Manchester band – someone rather cruelly referred to them as Ivory Mondays to me recently – but so what? The Jam sounded a bit like the Who, Oasis sounded a bit like the Beatles. It didn’t stop them from becoming two of the biggest and best bands of all time.
For the millennials and Gen Zs who make up the vast majority of the music-buying, streaming and gig-going public, these bands are a distant memory. I well remember the excitement of thinking the revolution might be televised after all when the Mondays appeared on the same episode of Top of the Pops as the Stone Roses back in the eighties, but kids today will have only seen that if their parents watch old episodes on UK Gold, or if they googled Shaun Ryder when he was on I’m A Celebrity.
The truth is, if you’re influenced by hedonism and House beats, or pills, thrills and Frankie Knuckles, you’ll have a job NOT to sound like the Mondays – especially if you’ve got a similar talent for writing banging, anthemic choruses and you’re an absolute lad like George Johnson. Ivory Wave encapsulate a feeling that’s as fresh as a winter dawn for every generation lucky enough to experience it, and if you’re the cynical type who’s seen it all before, stop whining about your lost youth and try re-living it instead. Ivory Wave are here to help.
There’s still time for me to catch the last, superb, half-hour of Call Me Unique and Madi Saskia at Mama Roux’s, and after that I’m tempted further up Lower Trinity Street to all-night Soul club the Night Owl, helplessly led astray by the memorable Ivory Wave refrain that’s still ringing in my ears… “I’m Uptown… I’m not coming home tonight”.