There’s definitely something in the air you know...and it’s not just the supergrade skunk that the dude on the bus is always sparking up. Nope, slowly but surely Birmingham’s actually becoming (whisper it) cool. I know, I know, that’s not what we do here in...ahem...B-Town...but, whether it’s Mr Birds Vintage Emporium (which opened on the same day as this year’s Oxjam), the ever growing range of local lifestyle magazines or the independent pubs and clubs spring up all over the place this City’s slowly but surely waking up to its potential at last.
Oxjam Brum’s a great opportunity to catch up with some of the musical gems on offer as well as – just as importantly – raising some much needed dosh for those less fortunate than us...Mancunians for instance. My own personal Oxjam odyssey (there were gigs all over the place for 12 hours or so) kicked off with Keziasoul in the Symphony Hall Bar. Kezia Johnson’s been singing all her life (“since I came out” she once admitted in an interview...must’ve given the midwife a surprise eh?) but it’s the past two or three years that’s seen her step out into the limelight a little more. Thank the lord too. There’s an ease to her vocal that marks her out as something pretty special and, with some classy neo-soul, nu jazz style tunes it’s an ear tingling package. Any young female jazz/soul vocalist inevitably draws comparisons with La Winehouse (it’s the law, okay?) and there is a slight similarity there in the odd elongated word or two but there’s a power and an innate sassiness too that’s all her own. Good jazz / soul vocalists are relatively easy to find, great ones ain’t. Kezia Johnson belongs firmly in that more elusive group.
From a relative newcomer to some absolute beginners. Cannon Street only debuted at last month’s Moseley Folk Festival, immediately earning them the kind of gushing praise generally reserved for visiting deities. They deserve it though. Sisters Nadi and Rukaiyah sing with the kind of harmony that would make angels green with envy. They’ve got some equally sweet tunes too with instantly catchy choruses like the “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” bit in one of the set’s many highlights, St Marys View. Lovely stuff.
Leaving the Symphony Hall it was time to abandon dry land altogether and head down to a canal boat to catch Paul Murphy, lead singer of The Destroyers and general living legend. In fact as well as abandoning dry land reality rapidly faded away from view too as Murphy span fantastical tales about everlasting mice, magical budgerigars called Tweedledeedeedee and Oscar Wilde replete with authentic sounding impersonations (not that anyone alive knows what he sounded like...unless they’re an everlasting mouse). Stripped of the musical accompaniment that normally comes with this stuff gave you chance to focus on the lyrics and Paul’s unique vocal delivery, a mix of beat poet hipness and Irish blarney. Sitting there, rocking gently just a few feet away from the great man was a magical experience. If you were blessed with eternal life spending a century or two with this dude would still leave you wanting more.
Off to a rammed Island Bar for Killing Fields Of Ontario or Editors Of Leon if you’re looking for a convenient pigeon hole to stick ‘em in. It’s a pleasing combination though, nailing Tom from Editors slightly ominous indie vocal to more of a country tinged rock sound. Impressively foot tapping.
After an Oxjam cocktail...hic...it was time for Anushka...aka Anna Palmer...aka Little Palm...aka the girl out of Tantrums. Palmer’s been playing in Birmingham under various guises for a few years now. Whatever the name she’s been consistently impressive though, transforming from a seemingly fragile creature into a hurricane voiced keyboard battering whirlwind of emotion as soon as she sets foot on stage. With the recent addition of a drummer, Seth, to back her up she’s moving in a jazzier direction now, stirring comparisons with the 80s Bad Day celebrating Carmel McCourt. There’s no recorded material from this new incarnation yet but on the strength of this performance – in particular her magnum opus in waiting The Wasp Factory – it’ll be well worth the wait.
A strap on reel to reel tape recorder, a huge 80s video camera, a melon on a piece of string...altogether now...“these are a few of my favourite things”, well, they are in the hands of the gloriously eccentric Tom Peel. Like Anna Palmer Tom’s also been knocking around for a while, slowly building up a cult following for his unique brand of oddball anthems like the fate tempting Sometimes I Want Bad Things To Happen (sung along with particular gusto by tonight’s crowd) and Brumcentric love song I Love It In The Town Hall When You Give Me A Squeeze. Who else would challenge an audience member to an impromptu conker fight mid song...or pull out a melon on a string to tip the balance in their favour? Exactly. You don’t get that from Justin Beiber eh? As mad as a box of Baumgartners but just as addictive to watch. Simply a national treasure.
Last up local wordsmith made good and Smethwick spitmeister par excellence Polarbear. Midlander’s have a pretty god rep when it comes to the written word with MC Big Willie Shakespeare and Jazzy J R R Tolkien both penning the odd hit or two. More recently there’s been a burgeoning spoken word scene driven in no small part by the lovely Jodi Anne Bickley (who sadly suffered a stroke last year and is still on the slow road to recovery...love n’hugs). Polarbear was one of her inspirations and, despite moving to London a while back (cue good natured boos from the locals) this set kept it real, from the typically self deprecating Brummie putdown of My City Ain’t Pretty through to the adolescent fumblings of Jessica...funny, moving and...the older you get...at times painfully poignant.
Oxjam Brum, you did us proud.