Stephen Pennell watches two more of Birmingham’s finest.
Soul music was my first love, but once I’d been unfaithful to her with punk and power-pop, there was no stopping me. I’ve since had flirtations with indie and grime, agit-pop and hip-hop, acid-jazz and Nick Drake, but I’ll never tire of my first love – particularly when she comes to town, just a ten-minute train ride away, and I don’t have to get up for work in the morning.
It’s rare and refreshing to see this under-represented genre getting some airtime, so kudos to Discover Birmingham, a month-long celebratory showcase of local talent put together by Birmingham Promoters, BBC Introducing, Counteract and Born Music, all taking place at the legendary Sunflower Lounge. The curators had evidently got hold of my algorithms and, on the same bill, put two of the vanishingly small number of artists who could tempt me, nay, force me through sheer magnetism, to abandon Dry January on a freezing cold night when I’m at that special post-Christmas level of skint.
First up is Ruth Kokumo, a pocket dynamo with a voice that could fill (and rattle the windows of) a room much bigger than the sold-out 200 capacity one she’s playing tonight. She’s not alone of course, having recently assembled a fantastic band, The Ark, co-conspirators in bringing her musical vision to reality. They open with a dramatic intro and an appropriate tribute to rhythm and blues royalty Ike and Tina Turner, with a storming version of Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter.
Ruth’s own sound is a direct descendent of Ike and his Kings of Rhythm, and on this form she’s next in line to the throne. There’s a hint of Amy Winehouse about her phrasing, which is fair enough as Amy culturally appropriated her style from black music in the first place, but for the rest of the set Ruth’s voice is as deep and dirty as Louisiana mud, with the grit and growl of a female Tom Waits, occasionally lashing out in the style of classic soul shouters like Big Maybelle. Songs like Ruby, Woman, and Fire go right back to the birth of soul, when blues got together with gospel and conceived a genre that was, in my opinion, the greatest cultural achievement of the twentieth century – the fact that Ruth is so damn good at it says it all really.
She finishes with a song called 1960, which rather appropriately fits the musical timeline I’m on about, although this music isn’t old fashioned – it’s timeless. As we cheer her and the band off, I explain to my young black mate that there is a lucrative crossover audience for brilliantly-realised pure soul like this among mods and scooter boys, and he gets it straight away: “Yeah, look at those white people at the front, they’re loving it!”
Top of the bill is Namiwa Jazz, with a sound that is uncompromisingly 21st century, but no less soulful for that. Ian Silk on guitar gets things underway with the relentless groove of Wound Up, while Namiwa adds the stream of consciousness bars that are her lyrical trademark. The driving beat of Let Me Treat You Right gives way to the joyful swing of Only The Sweetest – yet more unconventional and enchanting words that are testament to Namiwa’s pen game. Summer’s Night In June imaginatively and poetically sets a host of common usage abbreviations to the thrilling music, and she gets all assertive on the strident Get To Know Me Again.
A Woman Like Me is a new one to my ears, and I’m pleased to hear she’s lost none of her appetite for trusting her audience with her personality and truth. Next up is a gorgeous new ballad, Home, during which I get a bit carried away and put my lighter up. I may have been the first, but I very much doubt I’ll be the last. Achingly beautiful and emotionally resonant, it makes me come over all unnecessary, the fragility in her voice as she pleads “I don’t think my heart’s that strong”… well, I can’t speak for the house, but there isn’t a dry eye in my head.
Another new one, A Little Freedom, makes its live debut and provides more evidence that the songwriting camp she went on recently is paying handsome dividends, and her blistering cover of Eminem’s Lose Yourself – how’s that for ambition? – is fast becoming a live favourite. This is followed by her soaring, singalong anthem Jungle – she’s just showing off now. The show closes with magnificently sweaty funk workout Matter Of Fact and, like Namiwa, I’m done.
When the cast of hundreds on the two dozen Discover Birmingham shows was announced last month and I had to pick only one night, it was a tortuously difficult decision. It helped that they put two of the best on the same bill, and I think I called it. Ladies… your Birmingham Music Awards nominations are in.