Stephen Pennell has the perfect evening with one or two of Birmingham’s finest.
With expectation building as I looked forward to seeing my favourite current artist live on stage for the first time, I couldn’t help but hope that this would be the perfect gig.
First, the location is ideal – Birmingham is a city with a heritage of musical innovation and diversity that puts most others to shame. It is the world HQ of bhangra and heavy metal, and home to some of the finest purveyors of every musical genre I can think of, from hip-hop to big pop and all points between. By happy coincidence, it’s also the hometown of tonight’s star turn.
Secondly, the venue itself ticks another box on my ‘dream night out’ list. The Night Owl is the UK’s only bespoke Northern Soul club, almost hidden down atmospherically urban Lower Trinity Street in Digbeth. Outside is the last word in industrial chic; clubs disguised as scrap metal yards, squeezed between heavy engineering works that double as canvasses for cutting edge graffiti art. Inside, the vibe is seventies retro, yet somehow tasteful in spite of that. Near-neighbours include tech and creative hub the Custard Factory, New Orleans-themed Mama Roux’s, national rave treasure the Rainbow Venues, and the Old Crown, dispensing beer and bonhomie since 1368. So pre- and post-gig there’s plenty to do to either warm up or wind down.
One thing that can always make or break a good night out is the company you’re in. So as well as being in the best venue of my favourite city watching its best artist, the icing on the cake was persuading my lovely wife to come along. She’s probably bored rigid with me singing the praises of Call Me Unique, for which I can only apologise – but when I’m really into something I have this annoying habit of wanting to share it with the one I love. (She looked a million dollars as always by the way).
As stage time approached, DJ Jahmai Jones had all these ingredients simmering away nicely. Now it was time for head chef Call Me Unique and her accomplished band to bring everything to the boil. And man does she cook up a storm! Over the plaintive guitar that introduces opening number The Stranger, her voice is as clear as a bell.
This is undoubtedly A Good Thing, as far from being superfluous or an optional extra, Call Me Unique’s lyrics are really worth delving into. They are poetic and profound, and judging by the passion with which she delivers them, I’d guess largely autobiographical. This is a woman who has suffered for her art, and the emotions given vent in the song Sholow are so obviously raw one almost feels guilty about being so enthralled and entertained by them.
Other songs have a harder, defiant, even militant edge, such as Bombs and Wars, a hard-hitting commentary on the futility of thug life. Hotly-tipped local rapper Lady Sanity does an impromptu guest spot on this and doesn’t put a foot or phrase wrong. Elektric, another local artist showing support, would have done an equally good job had she joined in I’m sure.
Unique then lightens the mood with her anthem, The Wife, a jaunty tribute to womankind wherein she channels her inner India Arie and shows off her own rapping skills. This finally gets a release next year and deserves to be a hit. Her versatility becomes apparent on house stomper Time To Love, which is well on the way to a couple of hundred thousand YouTube views, and she follows this up with a great version of the Destiny’s Child hit Say My Name, which showcases the the band’s excellent musicianship and Unique’s stunning vocal dexterity.
Throughout her ninety-minute set, Unique quotes extensively from the encyclopaedia of black music, mixing a lethal cocktail of jazz, soul, hip-hop, RnB, all interspersed with between-song audience engagement which betrays a warm, open and humble personality. Typical Brummie really.
Call Me Unique is part of a burgeoning urban music scene in the second city for which Laura Mvula and Lady Leshurr are flying the flag, while a host of others like Sicnis, Namiwa Jazz, Truemendous, Jacob Banks, Juice Aleem, Elektric, Affie Jam and Lady Sanity are bringing out EPs and peppering the internet with intelligent, vibrant music. Treat yourself, look them up. If the music lovers of Brum could help shine a bigger spotlight on local artists, I reckon in a few years people might think that MOBOs stands for the Music of Birmingham Origin awards.
So anyway, it turned out it WAS the perfect gig – apart from the weather. But you can’t have everything.