Stephen Pennell sees further evidence of Birmingham’s musical talent, times two.
It was Friday, it was payday, the working week had finished and the weather was as fresh and lovely as a Namiwa Jazz melody. Her gig at the Hare & Hounds – a support slot for new touring show Motown in Dub that you can catch at this year’s Simmer Down festival in Handsworth Park – was scheduled to start at 10.30pm, so time was not pressing on me as I strolled around quaint North Warwickshire hamlet of Chelmsley Wood, reading my phone in the afternoon sun.
Then, all of a sudden, Twitter informed me that Lady Sanity was on at Mama Roux’s at 6pm as part of a Sound Lounge takeover of Digbeth Dining Club. This news put a spring in my step and added urgency to my hitherto relaxed stroll around the village shops. For a start I had to run back to the bank to get the extra money for a longer night out, then collect the babbies from childcare and finally get into my wife’s good books by frying her a steak before dropping the “I have to go out NOW!” bombshell.
It worked a treat and by five to six I was buying Sanity and her mom a drink at Mama Roux’s in Digbeth’s Lower Trinity Street, also home to Spotlight, the Night Owl, the Rainbow and Void, a new club set up in a derelict old monastery. Or did I dream that? Anyway, it’s like Broad Street but with better music and cooler people.
Lady Sanity is a bit of a legend in these parts. A few weeks ago I asked promoter Dragon Grime to name a Birmingham rapper destined for the top and straight away he said “Sanity”. We then spent the next ten minutes talking about how great she is. The undisputed queen of Brummie rap Lady Leshurr gave her a shout out at her recent gig at Digbeth Institute, and later on this evening, when Madi of Namiwa Jazz’s band asked “What was Sanity like?” and I replied “Brilliant”, Namiwa herself interjected: “She’s always brilliant”.
Sanity opened with the recently-released track Future, typical of her sound in the way it promotes conscious and positive messages through reams of lyrics over old-skool hip-hop beats and jazzy brass and piano motifs. I’m loathe to pigeonhole her but if you like A Tribe Called Qwest and The Pharcyde then chances are you’ll like Sanity. She also looks the part with a fro to die for . Other highlights of the set include Blueprint, Bars For The Bin, Keep It Alive, When I’m Dreaming, The Pupil, Role Models and the brilliant Kinda Funny with its radio-friendly chorus.
My personal favourite, though, is her hometown homage Yellow – “I got grey skyscrapers hanging over mine/About to paint the whole place until they see the shine/Thee see the metal/But never notice the petals”. There’s so much information contained in her songs that if her debut album comes with a lyric book (which it should) it will have to be sold in Waterstones in its own right. But it’s quality AND quantity, the bars as profound as they are prolific.
If you’re lucky enough to see her live, be prepared to concentrate. I was doing just that from my vantage point about two yards from the stage when an acquaintance came up to me and started a full-on conversation right in the middle of a song. I was abrupt enough to get rid of her in a couple of minutes but that kind of thing must be frustrating for an artist like Sanity who pours her heart and soul into every performance.
After taking in a storming set by Verscheiden and thoroughly enjoying the plaintive, stripped-back sound of Tehilla Henry, it was time to run the risk of crossing Digbeth High Street to catch the 50 to the Hare & Hounds.
About a year ago, thinking about Laura Mvula and Lady Leshurr, I wondered aloud on Twitter what Birmingham had done to deserve so many great black female artists. I was inundated with tweets about Call Me Unique, Sicnis, Affie Jam, Lady Sanity and Namiwa Jazz and as I set about checking them all out I realised I had only scratched the surface.
I learned that Namiwa started out by getting up on-stage at an open-mic night a couple of years ago and stunning the crowd into silence with nothing more than a bit of spoken word. It was then she realised she might have something special. She turned her hand to songwriting and steady progress followed with the release of her Garden of Eden EP featuring the hard-hitting lyrics of F*** The Media and The Beautiful Ones, which I immediately related to with its talk of a “council estate kid” with “drug dealers swimming round his feet”.
And it wasn’t just me – when I played it to my daughter she described it as “mesmerising” and suggested we should stop people in the street and MAKE them listen to it. Namiwa then stepped up a level with the launch of the 360 on Love EP at the Sunflower Lounge. With drums and bass fleshing out her sound, songs we thought we knew became pulsating anthems. She had the look of late sixties Aretha and the stagecraft to match, and now I see her whenever I can, even when, like tonight, I’ve got to be up for five in the morning.
She opened with the irresistible groove of Wound Up, a funky meandering stream of consciousness about old friends, ex-lovers and her determination not to be taken for a ride – unless it’s on the 22 bus. Second song Stupid Me is a story of unrequited love for a friend – “You say it’s not right/you say it’s not time/whatever, that’s fine/but you’re a liar if you look at me/and say you don’t see possibilities” – all wrapped up in classic soul.
This was followed by Only The Sweetest, a real joyful affair on which the chemistry between Namiwa and (so much more than a) backing vocalist Madi Saskia casts an intricate, magical spell. In this Namiwa sings the phrase “take a walk through my hypotheses” and somehow leaves it dripping with soul. Jungle closes the show, a vibrant and truly uplifting roar for freedom from a restrictive relationship which showcases the talents of guitarist Ben with Roche driving it all along on bongos.
So ruthless is her quality control that she could easily do an hour without a drop in standards, but it’s the curse of the support act to have to cut short their set. That said, she could have been supporting Aretha Franklin and she’d still be the highlight for me. She’s politically and socially aware, emotionally articulate and mature and a great singer. It’s early days yet but she has enough songs for an amazing debut album and if I win big on the lottery this weekend I swear I’m going to fund the recording and promotion of it myself.
Pic – Jason Bryant