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Stephen Pennell ©

As my wife tried in vain to comfort my distraught 11-year old son following England’s World Cup exit on Saturday night, I wished I could share his pain. But life, as it sometimes does, had hit me with a heartbreaking dose of perspective, and the demise of England’s dreaming paled into insignificance when compared to the news I read, mid-match, of the untimely passing of Ruth Noah.

Photograph: Taylor Wright

Ruth was a staple of the local live music scene, a sparkling jewel in Birmingham’s musical crown. I discovered her first supporting Namywa at the Hare and Hounds, a gig I reviewed for Counteract. I bowled in as she led a classic three-piece line-up of the kind favoured by Jimi Hendrix and local legend Steve Ajao through You Don’t, a deep blues original of which either would be proud. I was charmed equally by her understated blues/soul grooves and our brief post-gig conversation in the blazing area. The gig did nothing to prepare me for what was to come the next time I saw her, at a Birmingham Music Awards showcase I reviewed for Birmingham Press:

“She’s beefed up her sound since last I saw her by assembling The Ark, a five-piece band that could give the Black Eyed Peas lessons in diversity. There’s a Vietnamese girl playing the funkiest guitar this side of the Nile (Rodgers), an incredible bass player who brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘happy slapping’, a percussionist with more energy than a gallon of Red Bull, and a drummer and saxophone player who look and sound like they’ve been commandeered from The Commitments. They’d be worth seeing even if they were Ruth-less, but thank the Lord they’re not.

Her slender frame gives no indication of what’s to come, and she opens her mouth to unleash a voice direct from heaven, but with all the fire and brimstone of the other place. Mom and Dad glimpsed the future when they gave her a biblical name, because this is a biblical performance, and it makes you wonder which Birmingham you’re in - UK or Alabama. I only know one song, a cover of Ike and Tina Turner’s Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter (and it is), but I’ll be getting to know Ruth’s original numbers ASAP. Jools Holland would love her, and she’d go down a storm on at Mod/Soul weekenders in scooter rally season.”

A few weeks later I went to see her again at Mama Roux’s New Years Eve party, where she brought the house down. She chatted to me and my wife and I seem to recall we somehow ended up looking after some of her stage gear. By now a confirmed fan, I was excited to discover through her socials that her mom was a family friend. I reviewed her for the last time a couple of weeks later, when she was rightly chosen as part of a bill to represent the brightest and best of our city’s musical talent. This is how the review appeared in my book King City.

“It’s rare and refreshing to see this under-represented genre getting some airtime, so kudos to Discover Birmingham, a month-long celebratory showcase of local talent put together by BBC Introducing and Counteract, all taking place at the legendary Sunflower Lounge. The curators had evidently got hold of my algorithms and, on the same bill, put two of the vanishingly small number of artists (the other being Namywa) who could tempt me, nay, force me through sheer magnetism, to abandon Dry January on a freezing cold night when I’m at that special post-Christmas level of skint.

First up is Ruth Noah, a pocket dynamo with a voice that could fill (and rattle the windows of) a room much bigger than the sold-out 200 capacity one she’s playing tonight. She’s not alone of course, having recently assembled a fantastic band, The Ark, co-conspirators in bringing her musical vision to reality. They open with a dramatic intro and an appropriate tribute to rhythm and blues royalty Ike and Tina Turner, with a storming version of Funkier Than A Mosquito’s Tweeter. Ruth’s own sound is a direct descendent of Ike and his Kings of Rhythm, and on this form she’s next in line to the throne.

There’s a hint of Amy Winehouse about her phrasing, which is fair enough as Amy appropriated her style from black music in the first place, but for the rest of the set Ruth’s voice is as deep and dirty as Louisiana mud, with the grit and growl of a female Tom Waits, occasionally lashing out in the style of classic soul shouters like Big Maybelle. Songs like Ruby, Woman, and Fire go right back to the birth of Soul, when Blues got together with Gospel and conceived a genre that was, in my opinion, the greatest cultural achievement of the 20th century - the fact that Ruth is so damn good at it says it all. She finishes with a song called 1960, which rather appropriately fits the musical timeline I’m on about, although this music isn’t old-fashioned - it’s timeless.”

I’ve often opined that nowhere outside Black America has more soul than Birmingham. Ruth Noah was a very big part of that. Rest in Peace Ruth, you will be sadly missed.





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