Review: Mahalia

Stephen Pennell celebrates the continued rise of another local-(ish) talent.

The first time I saw Mahalia it might as well have been in someone’s (admittedly rather large) living room. Everybody sat round her in a circle while she sang her (admittedly rather good little) songs, and I could tell from the banter that I was virtually the only one there who didn’t know her personally.

I’d been tipped off about her by my sister-in-law, who was in her class at Birmingham Ormiston Academy, and who also warned: “There’ll be nobody there apart from her mates”. I went as a sceptic but left as a fan, and hailed her as one of the West Midlands’ best urban females in a now three year-old article.

Her progress was rapid, and in a review of a subsequent gig, I predicted that in the near future, she wouldn’t have time to do the ‘meet, greet, and take a selfie’ thing she did at the 300-capacity Castle and Falcon as soon she’d be playing to thousands. But I’m no Mystic Meg – by this time, her song Sober on the Colours YouTube platform was turning into an unstoppable viral juggernaut, hitting seven million views on the day of that gig. Check out the attached video if you’re interested in how many it’s up to now – it goes some way to explaining the long line of fans snaking around deepest, darkest Digbeth on this cold November night.

Doors opened at seven, and we drove past the venue at about ten-to, on our way to Digbeth Dining Club. The size of the gathering outside was alarming, but I was confident they’d be inside by the time we’d polished off our curry. No such luck. By the time we headed for the gig, the queue was past the JFK memorial mosaic and all the way down Floodgate Street. I thought I saw the end of it, but it was just another corner. One-and-a-half streets later, we finally joined the end of the throng and from there it took us an hour to get in.

We’d booked unreserved seating on the balcony but all seats were occupied, and for a while it looked as though we’d be watching the show on tip-toes from behind the cast of Land Of The Giants. Wifey doesn’t do basic – she’s well-groomed, meticulously manicured and drives a German whip. She’s got a monthly hair and nails contract, and doesn’t countenance camping, glamping or standing up at gigs. When she vowed “Never again”, it was time to get assertive with the security until they found us some comfortable seats, which they did in the nick of time, just as Mahalia appeared.

Dressed in a long denim shirt (soon to be discarded), black leotard, fishnet tights and docs, she cut a super-confident figure as her long braided hair followed closely behind. She opened with Hide Out, one of the strongest tracks on a very good debut album, Love and Compromise, the cover-art of which adorned the stage. Straight from the kick-off, backing (and often lead) vocals were provided by the adoring young crowd, and their harmonies were quite impressive.

As you would expect, she performed the album almost in it’s entirety, and I had no complaints about that. Particular highlights were Do Not Disturb, Good Company, Karma, He’s Mine, dancefloor filler Simmer and the beautiful, jazzy album closer, Square 1. Biggest hit Sober was given an appropriately big production, with a speeded-up remix tagged on at the end, and the guitar, almost a permanent fixture in her younger days, only came out for one song, Honeymoon.

Wifey and I were slightly disappointed by the omission of what we both consider to be her best song, No Reply, but mature, accomplished ballads like What You Did, and the jaunty RnB pop of What Am I? more than made up for it. She closed the show with the brilliant I Wish I Missed My Ex, the final chapter in an overall theme of malevolence, or at least indifference, towards her ex-boyfriends.

The 21 year-old writes evocatively on other relationship nuances too, but there’s no denying she possesses a cutting turn of phrase when eviscerating an ex-partner, a bit like Adele but with better grooves. As a (failed) songwriter myself though, I can’t help wondering if the liaison she so viscerally documents in Sober really did end “in the middle of October”, or if that’s just poetic licence.

Long-term fans will know Mahalia doesn’t do encores, but she did re-emerge to dance energetically around the stage, waving goodbye to, and feeling the love from, all corners of the delighted audience. I was cheering and clapping with the rest at such a huge and accomplished show, with a great band – Ross, Dan, Samson and long-term sidekick Charlie, take a bow – but I couldn’t help feeling a tinge of sadness. Her between-song patter is as witty and charming as ever, but there are fewer Birmingham stories than there used to be.

I missed the fond reminiscences of her Brummie friends, her schooldays here, and her nights at Indy Bar drinking a bottle of wine direct from the bottle through a straw. I reflected on when I used to get excited about hearing Silly Girl on local radio, and then remembered how gassed I was a few months ago to hear Do Not Disturb on the radio in New York. (I almost fainted when I went outside and saw her image on an electronic billboard in Times Square).

Things have changed and Mahalia has grown, progressed, spread her wings and flown the nest. (Have I got bars or what?) She’s not ‘ours’ any more, and as a proud daughter of Leicester, maybe she never really was. She’s on the road to major success and perhaps belongs to the world she’s been touring, and maybe that world will one day belong to her. She’ll have much better writers than me reviewing her in future, and that’s a stone-cold fact.

But we should be proud of our part in the blossoming of such a huge talent, and I hope we always give her a warm welcome when she comes back to visit. As a city, we were lucky to have her, and in return, we baked a good ‘un while she was here.