Digbeth Calling

Stephen Pennell watches another night of Birmingham’s finest.

Affie Jam, Madi Saskia, Rochae, Kofi Stone, Jay Grant, Tehillah Henry, Chrissy A.
The Night Owl,

Have you heard about those police stings in America set up to catch wanted fugitives? They fool the miscreants into thinking they’ve won some incredible prize then arrest them when they show up to collect it. Well here’s a heads up for West Midlands finest – if ever you want me, just put a time and place on a poster, write ‘Affie Jam’ on it, and in the words of the Jackson Five, I’ll be there.

That’s why, having got up for work at four that morning, and faced with the prospect of doing the same the next, I put on my long-johns, buttoned up my coat against the bitter cold and headed for Digbeth (yet again) on a damned Thursday. Even then I had to turn back halfway to the bus stop and borrow Wifey’s umbrella (which I lost on the way home).

The event was called House of Vibes, organised by Soultribe, and was on at my favourite club, The Night Owl. Normally I’m there on non-school nights until the early hours listening to Northern Soul and 60s RnB spun by their fantastic DJs Paul Cook and Mazzy Snape, but tonight was an altogether different proposition – a live showcase for some of Birmingham’s best emerging talent. It was more structured than an open-mic night, but still a fairly loose arrangement, with the artists coming and going to help with each other’s backing vocals and the like.

First up was Chrissie A, accompanied by guitarist Tom, who did a promising number of her own and a nice cover of Michael Jackson’s Rock With You. She was followed by Rochae, backed on guitar by tonight’s headliner Affie Jam. Rochae can often be seen and heard playing tom-toms for Namiwa Jazz, but tonight she treated us to some developing ideas of her own. Big potential was hinted at when she sang her excellent debut Driving, which had the packed house singing along to an infectious chorus.

Next up was local rapper Kofi Stone, who got the place jumping with some dope hip-hop. He performed his own jams Nothin’ Ain’t Free, Stories in Pyjamas and Message To Her – all available on YouTube and well worth checking out.

On arrival I’d seen Madi Saskia in the beer garden/blazing area and hoped she was performing . I’m delighted to report that my wish came true. She opened with her own song Dreamin’, accompanied brilliantly by Tehillah Henry on guitar and the multi-talented Rochae beating out a driving rhythm on somebody’s mic’d-up guitar-case . She then absolutely slayed it with a cover of Mahalia’s Sober.

Now I love Mahalia, but Madi’s impassioned delivery left me a little bit emotionally drained and feeling like I’d heard the song properly for the first time. Dripping with painful personal experience, it was what I imagine an actual human heart breaking would sound like. Madi is every inch the Soul Diva on stage but refreshingly modest and humble off it. She’s rubbish at taking compliments, but on tonight’s performance she’s going to have to get used to it.

Madi then left the stage free for talented singer-songwriter Tehillah to perform a couple of her own soul-tinged folky originals and a wonderfully re-imagined version of I Will Survive.

Rapper Jay Grant came on to whip the crowd up some more with his quick-fire grimy bars, joined at one point by Rochae, who delivered a ridiculously catchy hook on one of the songs.

The crowd was so hyped by now I was beginning to wonder how Affie Jam’s gentler sound would follow this madness. From reading her well-written and enlightening blogs, I know she’s not blessed with the supreme confidence her talent warrants and if I, as a huge fan, was worried, then I thought she might be too. But while in real life she may have insecurities, to the casual observer she possesses an ungodly amount of sass.

Someone once told her she was too cool to be from Birmingham. This clown had obviously never seen Steel Pulse singing Ku Klux Klan on the BBC wearing appropriate headgear, or the Peaky Blinders walking in slow motion, or a fifteen year-old Steve Winwood possessed by the spirit of Ray Charles, or Pass The Dutchie being the first black video ever played on MTV, or the dancers at the Night Owl. But Affie’s reply was great – “I’m cool BECAUSE I’m from Birmingham”.

She came onstage boosted by winning a CD in an impromptu quiz (FIX!) and looking as effortlessly stylish as ever in baseball cap, glorious blonde braids, skinny jeans and Doctor Marten boots. She kicked off with the achingly beautiful Put Aside and from the opening bars she and backing vocalist Jabez Walsh had the crowd eating out of the palms of their hands. The chemistry between the two of them is really something special – I’d like to see him performing with her every time and not just when she’s nervous, as she says is the case tonight.

Affie’s total command of the room is emphasised on her lovely cover of Little Dragon’s Twice, when the sound drops to nothing but her voice and finger-snaps; as the crowd join in it’s as if she’s put a spell on us. The two-part harmonies that grace the next song, Babel, are something Fleet Foxes would be proud of – so intricate, polished and layered you’re checking to see if there are still only two of them on stage.

Affie closes her short-but-oh-so-sweet set with an imaginative and emotionally charged cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit. I join in the calls for an encore but feel like a fraud as I have to sprint off into the night hoping to get three or four hours kip before my horrendously early start in the morning.

On the journey home I reflect on the fact that I’ve seen her live four times now and still not seen her perform my two favourite songs (which she’s too cool to bother thinking up proper titles for). My consolation is that I always enjoy seeing her so much I hardly notice at the time. That’s how cool she is.