Stephen Pennell ©
The Mill, Digbeth, 21st September.
I’ve already written a round-up of the this year’s Birmingham Music Awards for another outlet - a brief morning-after overview. But the BMAs are about much more than a list of winners and losers and Wednesday night’s ceremony ended up meaning a whole lot more to me than that. I wanted to explain why that is, to do it justice, and to give it the gravitas I think it deserves, so here goes, and apologies if it turns into my fourth book.
Me and Tydal, Birmingham’s best battle rapper and easily one of my top three sons, stood on the corner of Meriden and Gibb Street in Digbeth just before door time (6pm). I wanted to line my stomach for the big night ahead, but Tydal decided to head up Lower Trinity Street to The Mill, hoping to bump into M1llionz - his, mine (and seemingly everyone else’s) current favourite rapper. This gave me the chance to catch up with King City Online writer Wallis Brown and her staunchly supportive partner Jamie, as well as filmmaker George Francis, AKA G-Jiggy, BMA ambassador and decorated 0121 foot soldier, all passing by on their way to the show.
Then, who should jump out of an Uber with a smile and personality that can be seen from space but the very wonderful musician, socio-political authority and ray of early autumn sunshine AffieJam, who recently returned from exile in Edinburgh. After not seeing her for at least two years, I was excited enough we were in the same city, never mind the same little bit of it, and she joined me for a pre-gig slice of pizza at Crazy Pedros in the Custard Factory. As we sat chatting, I realised how much I’d missed her and reflected on the fact that she exponentially improves Birmingham simply by virtue of being in it. Honestly, the council should just pay her to live here, like the Brazilian government did with Pele.
At the gig proper, Affie and I enjoyed seeing Abz Winter do a great job of entertaining those gathered for the champagne reception with her energetic electro-soul stylings and forthright lyrics. She sang Traitor, Under Me, I See Red and her current single It’s Not Your Movie. No Abz, it’s not, but if it was then you’d be on the soundtrack.
Our hosts for the evening were Natalie Graham and Henry Liston from BBC WM, and they navigated their way through the live performances and 37 award categories with quick wit and a good-natured lightness of touch, steering a path through the chaos around them rather than organising all the fun out of it.
Their first job was to introduce The White Lakes, who kicked things off on the main stage, and when I say kicked off I mean it, unleashing their powerful brand of driving indie-rock. AffieJam, who knows more about these things than I ever will, said the sound was great, so kudos to the engineer.
Bambi Bains appeared at this year’s Great Escape and Glastonbury festivals - so tonight was the big one for her - and she conquered her nerves to deliver a cool, collected and classy rendition of her latest single Mistake, a triumphant fusion of the varied Birmingham cultures she grew up with.
Since I last saw them, The Novus have changed personnel yet lost none of their personality. They put on a powerful and spectacular show, with the new keyboard player writhing around like Ian Curtis on speed, only adding to the vintage-Novus onstage madness of Connor Hill, Tyla Challenger and the brothers Woodman.
The Assist performed Better Days, winner of the Best Song award and taken from their long player Council Pop, the phrase I used to describe their sound in a 2019 live review. As you can imagine, I was quite pleased when it was named Best Album. Frontman Mikey Stanton looked very smart in a suit. Not a track suit Assist fans. A suit.
Another strong contender and nominee for the best album prize was The Misdiagnosis of Chyvonne Johnson by Truemendous, which Spotify tells me was my most streamed album last year. No surprise then that my most streamed song was its opening track Worst Child, featuring Rozzzqween, who tonight turned in a performance that just about pipped RTKAL and Sipho to steal the show. But hey, it’s not a competition, and all three were a stunning reminder of the world class levels this city operates at when it comes to music.
As if to emphasise this point, two major talents and Best Entrepreneur nominees Call Me Unique and Namywa, were next to me in the audience, and not gracing the stage for a change. I told Namywa how her idiosyncratic lyrics and sweet melodies have affected me over the years, and she told me a little bit - but not too much - about her exciting plans for the future. It was in this conversation I learned that Lifetime Achievement winner, the late, great Robin Valk gave Namywa her first ever radio interview and that Best Male winner M1llionz is the son of one of my favourite MCs Sic’Nis. Her 2k:SIC’teen EP is top tier Birmingham rap - I paid for the download and bought a physical copy direct from the artist over drinks in the Cosy Club not long after its release and I still love it.
Gavin Monaghan, vibe-wrangler in chief at Magic Garden studios, won two awards; deserved recognition for a thoroughly modest and humble man who is all too keen to hand off that recognition to the people he works with. He’s helped The Twang, Editors and countless others to scale great artistic and commercial heights, he’s worked with Robert Plant, Ocean Colour Scene, Tony Christie, The Cult, Grace Jones, Sly and Robbie, Jimmy Somerville, Aswad, Elvis Costello, Terry Hall, Kirsty MacColl, The Sherlocks, The Blinders and JAWS, yet somehow he always remembers the name of somebody like me. A measure of the man.
Another of Birmingham music’s best and most passionate cheerleaders was next up. Tim Senna’s friends and fans will know that he’s been lying low recently while going through difficult times, so his appearance tonight was most welcome to those of us who hold him in the highest regard and see him as an invaluable asset to the local scene. His brave, inspirational and brutally honest words regarding his struggle and recovery were spoken not sung, but were music to my ears all the same.
At this point I was watching with my mate and fellow unsuccessful nominee Adrian Goldberg, and Tim’s speech certainly put our misery-arsedness at not winning our respective categories into perspective. Perspective, respective - have I got bars or what? Anyway, congratulations to Babmag for winning Best Mag/Vlog/Blog - you must be good to beat me. But Adrian should have won best radio presenter, obvs.
I also chatted with actor, musician, writer and filmmaker Dylan Duffus, star of iconic Birmingham film One Day. He poured some of his own brand KAMO vodka into my glass, we briefly plotted something special and the chat will reconvene soon at his Custard Factory bar Channel 7 - watch this space. It just goes to show, the networking opps at the BMAs are off the scale, which is probably why I’d hardly seen Tydal since he desserted me at the Custard Factory. Did you see what I did there?
Pete Felton was an inspirational musician who conquered addiction and cancer before his untimely death at the age of 27 in 2020. The Pete Felton award was then introduced by the BMA team, both to keep our wonderful memories of him alive, and to recognise the contribution of buskers to the city streets. This year’s worthy winner was Jason Allen. It’s impossible to pay adequate tribute to Pete Felton in a few lines of a review. Someone should really write a book.
Out in the blazing area, I chatted with Best Mentor winner and all-round good egg Jonny Amos of BIMM, who was trying his best to disguise his delight at pipping his lovely wife and fellow nominee Meldra Guza to the award. You might have won tonight Jonny, but she’s in Rod Stewart’s band. Mic drop.
I first saw Lady Leshurr performing No Scrubs with my daughter at a school concert when they were both about 13 years old. Tonight she was named Best Female and I’m here writing about it. Small world eh? That’s one of the many great things about Birmingham - it’s big and diverse enough to produce all this amazing talent, yet small enough to feel like a community. Leesh also took my Brum Bastion title, putting her on a list that comprises her, Brian Travers and er… me. I’ll take that all day long.
After the show, the party continued at Nortons bar where I finally got a chance to congratulate Jo Jeffries on a triumphant event, and thank ace photographer Rob Blackham for his kindness in helping with my book King City. Also not quite ready to call it a night were Pearce and Niall from The Clause (Best Band winners for the second year running), Rozzzqween, AffieJam, Sipho (Best RnB/Soul) and a few Nortons regulars who were all over Affie and Rozzz like pigeons on a couple of chips.
The night finally ended in a very appropriate manner when Max Newbold of nailed-on future BMA winners Overpass commandeered the guitar off the bloke who was actually supposed to be playing it and serenaded us on our way out. It had long since passed The Other Side of Midnight - find it on Spotify
Dave Scrivens - Brummie supermod , dodgy geezer and my mate - once told me that “a friend will help you move house; a good friend will help you move a body”. Simon Pitt, co-organiser of tonight’s festivities, certainly falls into the latter category. Having had about two years to collect it, I decided to wait until the early hours of his busiest and most stressful day of the year to ask him to bring the Brum Bastion 2020 trophy with him to The Mill, and despite a to-do list as long as Livery Street, he remembered. A friend indeed, and another one I’d have in the trenches with me is the indefatigable Jo Jeffries. Between them they put on a fantastic showcase of the incredible talent that calls this city home, and if anyone can’t see the immense value in such a celebration after Covid has caused a 35% hit to the music industry, then I have to question either their sanity or their motivation. Keep on keepin’ on Jo and Simon, and thanks again. Real stars are rare.