Under pressure

Steve Pennell catches Mahalia at the Castle and Falcon, Moseley.

I’d been counting the days to this gig from the moment I printed the tickets off weeks ago, but when it became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to get childcare, I had to put my foot down. Mother’s Day tomorrow or not, I’m the number one Mahalia fan in our house and Wifey would be the one staying in with the kids. Translation: I begged, I pleaded, I promised to bring her breakfast in bed in the morning. Hell, I didn’t even go down the Villa!

Now, as local lad Samuel Johnson once nearly said, “A man who is tired of Digbeth is tired of life”, and with the spring the Villa had earlier put in my step I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t tempted to stay in the UK’s third coolest district (c. Travel Supermarket) where I could find some mates to celebrate with. Especially when I saw that The Wailers were on at the Institute. But no, the prospect of seeing Mahalia live, albeit on my own, was even more attractive, so I caught the number 50 and headed for Moseley.

My unscheduled stop in Digbeth, enjoyable though it was, had the negative consequence of me walking into the gig halfway through the set of the support act – a young singer from Brighton called IYAMAH. From the few songs I witnessed, I could tell I’d missed a treat. She has the air of a young Amy Winehouse about her, and what I heard was enough to have me searching out her stuff on the internet the next day, with her song Cryptic Love a particularly strong track.

Mahalia took the stage accompanied by the affable Charlie on bass and the opening bars of No Pressure, a melodic yet brutal exposé of the murky world of the music industry, and an immediate sign of how her songwriting has evolved in the year since I tipped her for the top in an article I wrote for a Birmingham music website. Further evidence of her development is provided by the fuller sound of the anthemic Independence Day and the anti-bullying message of Silly Girl, while the utterly charming Marry Me had me googling the bigamy laws.

This is followed by new single Proud Of Me, a tribute to her family who, if the lyrics are anything to go by, seem to have done a great job in keeping her grounded and instilling in her some genuine and meaningful moral values.

Up until quite recently Mahalia has mostly written beautifully crafted stories of love-struck adolescence, but next tune No Reply strikes me as the work of an emotionally articulate and strong young woman. It’s probably my favourite song of the night in spite of stiff competition from the plaintive Back-up Plan, a real tour de force which has the crowd singing along to the chorus.

We are then treated to a glorious mash-up of SZA’s The Weekend and Solange’s Cranes In The Sky – sung, played and arranged so perfectly it had me questioning Dobie Gray’s assertion that the original is always the greatest.The meaty commercial beat of Hold On is then followed, after she gets her breath back, by the rites-of-passage story Seventeen, which Mahalia introduces with amusing tales of fake IDs and teenage clubbing in Birmingham. In fact, all through the set her between-song banter and audience engagement is witty, warm and erm… engaging.

She then tugs at my heartstrings with another personal favourite, the absolutely gorgeous I Remember, a song which, when I first heard it, convinced me she was destined for greatness. She also informs us that she doesn’t play it very often these days, which is like a football manager saying I’ve signed Lionel Messi but I’m only going to pick him once a month. Madness.

On first listen, new song Honeymoon sounds like another winner, and after explaining that she doesn’t do encores, Mahalia finishes with Sober, a proper grown-up song that has clocked up seven million YouTube views and promises to be a real game-changer for her career.

So, she doesn’t do encores, but she does hang around afterwards to chat and take photos with her fans, a nice touch that seemingly everyone there, including yours truly, takes advantage of and really appreciates. I somehow doubt she’ll have time for all that in future when I have no doubt whatsoever that, rather than the 300 lucky souls here tonight, she’ll be playing to audiences of thousands. No Pressure dear.