By Stephen Pennell ©
Photography by Evolved Step ©
Like everywhere else I suppose, Birmingham has been up against it recently. The local music scene in particular has been hard hit by pandemic postponements and Covid cancellations, leaving artists on the verge of a breakdown instead of a breakthrough. They had to park the plectrums, bury the bass, stash the sticks and wait for the world to open up again. After all that, the city needed some kind of celebration, a party to announce that we were back - and no-one throws a party like the Birmingham Music Awards.
The appetite for the event was apparent from the speed at which the tickets flew out - the 600-capacity venue was packed to the rafters with artists and artisans, producers and pluggers, bloggers and vloggers, all making new connections and re-wiring old circuits in a way that we haven’t been able to for too long.
As usual, Birmingham is more ever-changing than Paul Weller’s moods, and having traversed the roadworks cutting a swathe through Digbeth in preparation for a new tramline and all manner of other developments, I made It to The Crossing just in time to see rapper Zac open the show with his slick flows and deep lyrics.
BBC WM’s Alex Noble MCd in the more traditional manner, with the wit and professionalism to which his radio audience has become accustomed. Clause frontman Pearce Macca took a night off from the most exciting new rock and roll band in Britain to man the turntables, displaying an eclectic taste in music and trademark sartorial elegance.
Point A brought an air of mystery to the stage with her Zorro mask and enigmatic name and persona, but that’s where the puzzle ends - her debut single Cross Me and follow up Amen display a clear and obvious talent. Given her assured performance, it was barely credible to find out this was her first live show. Landel was next up, spitting groove-laden bars over funky backing from a full band, including the wonderful Madi Saskia, who’s beautiful vocals and winning personality coax exponential improvements in every artist she works with. Honestly, that voice would make The Beatles better.
Dressed to kill with a voice to die for, Cariss Auburn treated us to her plaintive and soulful compositions, accompanied by Alexander Walker on keyboards and her own jazzy and mellow guitar. She was followed by Glass Ceilings, one of Birmingham’s best up-and-coming indie bands, with a rhythm section as crisp and clear as the November air outside and guitars that jangle like the keys in Shawshank. I Don’t Mind is a stone-cold classic that ranks alongside the very best of the Sarah Records catalogue.
Alex Ohm filled the space and rattled the windows with some accomplished, anthemic indie-rock - his set was uplifting, a J-O-Y to behold and he left the stage to rapturous cheers and applause. Not only that, I heard from the gig’s driving force Cerys Davies that Alex and his band had been willing and able volunteers, doing whatever they could to ensure the smooth running of the event.
This kind of altruistic spirit brings me on to 2019 BMA winner Tim Senna, who had by this time taken over from his BBC WM colleague Alex as host. He spoke passionately about the tight-knit Birmingham music community and in doing so encapsulated the essence of the BMAs and the mission of its founders Jo Jeffries and Dean Williams - steadfast support for the local scene and a burning desire to recognise those who contribute to it. Tim’s speech was so moving I think I got dust in my eye.
Finally the rare appearance of a double-bass on stage heralded the appearance of a new BMA ambassador, headliner Reuben James and his band. Reuben is a young man who’s been on an amazing journey already - writing and touring with Sam Smith and boasting a list of other collaborators as long as Livery Street. Joni Mitchell, John Legend and Bonnie Raitt to name a few, Herbie Hancock, Little Mix and Disclosure to name a few more.
There’s a hint of Pharrell Williams about the vocals, Usher in the stagecraft (along with a James Brown knee-drop), and genius in the piano virtuosity. “When did you get so cool?” he sings, just as I was thinking exactly the same thing about him. I’m guessing most artists would consider it a bit ambitious to mention Aretha, Al Green and John Coltrane in their lyrics, but not Reuben, as those are the kind of levels he’s aspiring to. One thing’s for sure, he has the talent to get there. It was a perfect end to a beautiful night, and to plagiarise a comment overheard on the way out, probably the best free gig I’ve ever been to.