Dave Woodhall finds an old favourite in a new place.
If you really can’t keep a good man down, then neither can you keep a good live music night quiet. Henry’s Blueshouse has acquired a mythical status in Birmingham’s musical heritage; not only did it famously spawn Black Sabbath from its old stomping ground in the Crown on Station Street but for years Henry’s played host to some of the biggest rock and blues names in the world under the auspices of the almost as legendary Jim Simpson, head of long-running Big Bear Music.
Henry’s took a break to get their breath back for a few decades before re-starting at the Bull’s Head on Bishopsgate Street a few years ago. They survived austerity and lockdown but the vagaries of property developers proved too much and Henry’s was forced to decamp round the corner to the Velvet Music Rooms. Bigger venue, bigger audiences and helpful owners (“Some of the best I’ve ever worked with“) said Jim, meant Henry’s boomed again until the venue was sold to accommodate the arrival of Snobs, another itinerant Brummie legend.
Undaunted, Jim moved a couple of hundred yards down Broad Street to the O Bar, which might prove the best of the recent bunch. And he should know. Asked how many venues on the street have played host to his promotions, Jim has to think for a moment. “Eight… nine… I make it a dozen, maybe more.” And if you think promoting is a licence to print money, Jim has only recently paid off a mortgage he took out to keep Big Bear afloat due to debts incurred when Ronnie Scott’s, the most famous (or should that be infamous?) venue of the lot, went out of business twenty-odd years ago.
So, finally debt-free and in his eighties, does that mean the oldest promoter in town might finally be thinking about retiring? Just for a second, the broad smile goes and a mock-serous look takes its place. “Sorry, what does that word mean? Besides, if I retired I’d only be doing the same as I am now.”
And if such a thing ever did happen, some of the most ardent live music fans in Birmingham and beyond would be deprived of their weekly doses of the blues. On Tuesday nights the O Bar has already become a fixture on the city’s live scene; when I paid a visit the Dirt Road Band, if you’ll excuse the cliche, were rocking the joint. This blues supertrio boast Ted Duggan, formerly of Badfinger, almost hidden on drums. Horace Panter, whose many day jobs include playing bass for the Specials and Steve Walwyn, longest-serving and perhaps the most technically-gifted guitarist in the lengthy history of Dr Feelgood, are up front.
It might seem incongruous to have such veterans of the music scene playing in the corner of a bar on one of the country’s most raucous entertainment strips but Jim has never been afraid of putting music into unusual places – the jazz festival he’s promoted for almost forty years regularly sees acts cropping up in shopping centres, car showrooms and builders yards.
The Dirt Road Band are every bit as good as they promise to be. The rhythm section provide the basis for Steve Walwyn to show both his playing ability and also a fine voice that was mostly hidden during his years with the Feelgoods. Amongst the highlights of a gloriously rocking 90 minute set were a re-working of Tulane and an eventual nod to Steve’s old mates with an encore comprising Down at the Doctor’s and their regular set closing Route 66. There’s nothing better you can do on a Tuesday night so don’t say there’s nothing happening Up Town in the middle of the week.
Henry’s continues at the O Bar every Tuesday night. Admission is free.