Stephen Pennell looks back at a vintage year for Birmingham music.
I had the time of my life in 2019, chronicling the local music scene, writing reviews, conducting interviews and receiving the honour of being named as an ambassador for the Birmingham Music Awards. Here are my highlights of the last twelve months.
A fantastic year for local music got off to a great start when I went to see Wolverhampton’s Citylightz at the o2 Academy. In my review I coined the term Rock N Road to describe their sound, and they paid me the ultimate compliment by using the phrase as the title for their debut EP, and presenting me with a signed copy of the vinyl.
It was at their gig when, amongst the supporting cast, I came across star of the future Shiraz Hempstock, who caught my ear with a cover of Fleetwood Mac anthem The Chain, and won my heart with this beauty:
In February I arranged a meeting with guitar god Liam Deakin from The Clause at Chelmsley Wood Asda to score tickets for their gig at the Institute, bumped into Fungi from Benefits Street at his pitch outside the Hare and Hounds for the last time before he passed away, and, with one eye on the future, saw the brilliant Glass Ceilings for the first time:
In March I interviewed the force of nature that is Jo Jeffries, co-founder of the Birmingham Music Awards. That didn’t make me as nervous as interviewing UB40, but they were absolute gents and treated me really well as they told me about their new album For The Many:
In April I took UB40 up on their offer of tickets to a show, saw fellow B-town legends JAWS at the Institute and one of my musical heroines Lady Sanity at the Town Hall. I also interviewed Michael Warnock from Karkosa, who spoke of their phenomenal success in South Korea, where their shows sell out in minutes and they play to absolute scenes like this:
May saw the second annual Birmingham Music Awards ceremony at The Mill, where lots of my favourites were honoured, and I spent a wonderful evening rubbing shoulders with the likes of JAWS, Steve Gibbons, Andy McCluskey from OMD, Fuzzbox, Ace from Skunk Anansie, Best Male Dapz On The Map and Best Grime/Rap winner Lady Leshurr:
In June we had Swim Deep’s triumphant return to the Sunflower Lounge, and healthy West Midlands representation at Glastonbury, with appearances from Mahalia, Call Me Unique, Brit award winner Jorja Smith and an epic set from The Streets:
July was a quiet month for shows, but saw the release of two of the best singles of the year, Lady Sanity’s Noise, and In My Element, the song that got The Clause signed by Universal, launched at the Sunflower Lounge with a video filmed over the road in Snobs. Speaking of videos, Jaws had one directed by their fan Brooklyn Beckham, and Erdz boy MIST released Birmingham’s biggest tune of the year, produced by fellow Brummie Preditah:
In August, the second annual Sonic Gun weekender tempted my mate home from New Zealand for two great nights at the Castle and Falcon in Balsall Heath. The stellar line-up included The Novus, 11 57, La Dharma, George Pannell, The Pines, Violet, Candid, FAITH, The Americas, Wolfgang J Harte (ex-Swim Deep), Karkosa and Spilt Milk Society, with The Clause headlining on Friday and Sugarthief on Saturday. It was a tremendous show of strength by the Birmingham indie scene – I couldn’t find appropriate footage but here’s one of Sugarthief I filmed earlier in the year that encapsulates the joy of their live show.
In September I saw a thrilling performance from teenage prodigies Flares, interviewed Aston rapper Stardom, and jumped around to The Novus for the fourth time this year at their headliner in Digbeth, put on DIY-style by the band to coincide with the release of their powerful single Post-Modern Fairytale.
In October, B-town veterans Swim Deep released their critically acclaimed third album Emerald Classics (named after the notorious Small Heath drinking den), but the live highlight of the month was seeing the ridiculously talented Soul powerhouse Namiwa Jazz live, performing this absolute banger:
There were fireworks in November with gigs from Ivory Wave, Lady Leshurr and Birmingham Ormiston Academy alumni Mahalia, and The Twang returned with their fourth album, If Confronted Just Go Mad, a real return to form:
December saw the last leg of a sold-out nationwide tour by The Clause, and a riotous Birmingham Music Awards Christmas party starring T.Roadz, Flares, Mayday and Ruth Kokumo, but my moment of the year has to be the continued progress of Lady Sanity. She is uniquely talented, quite simply the best in the business, and my biggest musical wish for 2020 is that people wake up to that fact. Happy New Year.