Monthly Archives: February 2012

Hit the Ode (part 2)

Hit the Ode, a monthly spoken word event organised by West Midland’s Apples and Snakes, returned last Thursday to prove that this is an event going from strength to strength. This month’s collection of open mic and featured poets consistently bowled the audience over with their humour, lyricism and raw emotion. The Victoria provided a resplendent setting; the intimate nature and dimly-lit room providing an evocative background for words that were even more powerful.

For those who are now regulars, Bohdan Piasecki is as much a celebrity as the poets he introduces. As a compere and poet himself, his obvious passion for the spoken word excites even the most cynical of audience members. The room was the most filled it’s been yet – an apt reflection of the growing popularity of Birmingham’s spoken word scene.

Advertised as ‘an eclectic mix of styles, voices and languages’, the night fulfilled just that. As the name suggests, open mics in any setting are a gamble. Apart from one crude and mediocre poet overcome by misogynism, however, the poets that performed were as worthy of the stage as those paid to be there. ‘Carys Matic’, an English teacher based in South Korea, humorously recited a poem about British stereotypes she’s often been expected to play up to on her travels. Ben Norris, a Birmingham-based student, excellently explored the connections one experiences with lovers and Grandparents alike, providing a humbling contrast to the more raucous poetry of the evening.

The first featured poet was Paul Murphy. An established resident of Birmingham, he is most-recognised as lead singer and punk poet of the band The Destroyers. Sharing his good and bad experiences of life with rhythmic rhyme, his words flowed instinctively. As was often the case throughout the evening, the audience were continually lulled in with humorous anecdotes and then left reeling at the sagacious and sombre moments.

Vanessa Kisuule, a multiple slam winning poet from Bristol, was the next featured poet. Speaking to her after the event she said that shy writers should not be deterred from the spoken word scene, as poets often use performance to hide the fact they aren’t prolific writers. From her recital, however, it was clear that Kisuule does not fall into this category. Her beautifully crafted metaphors were brought alive by her performance. With poems such as Little Red Bow, her honest and humbling account of a vulnerable friend, and Sandwich, a comic tale of OCD and relationships, the audience were moved from laughter to tears and back again.

The final highlight of the evening was the performance of New York City poetry circuit veterans, Jon Sands and Ken Arkind. Reciting their work alternately, the poets covered topics from a brother’s marriage to his male partner, to the ramblings of a woman on a New York subway platform. They captivated with beat, music, and poetry that obviously was anything but superficial. Possibly the best Hit the Ode yet, the bar has definitely been raised. There is no doubt that as talent continues to emerge, Birmingham has not seen the last of nights like this.

The next Hit the Ode is on Thursday 29th March at 7.30pm.

Words by Elisha Owen

Related links:
Hit the Ode @ the Victoria (part 1)
Tell Me on a Sunday (part 1)
The Poets’ Place

Micky Greaney @ Symphony Hall

Folk for Free is a monthly live music event held in the foyer bar at Symphony Hall, showcasing some of Birmingham’s finest singer-songwriter talent. This month the audience was treated to an hour with Micky Greaney, who the compare quipped in the introduction as ‘the best songwriter in Birmingham, except maybe for Ozzy.’

The Symphony Hall’s huge glass foyer entrance made an ideal backdrop to the performance. The hectic rush hour commotion of buses, mothers with prams, taxis and commuters outside the window somehow perfectly complimented his mellow, folk soft-rock ballads. The first half was just Greaney playing solo; his songs were admittedly very generic, all with comfortably familiar verse, bridge, chorus structures and gently resolving chords. Yet despite this, the performance was actually  genuinely affecting and moving.

Greaney has the shambling goateed gravitas to pull off a style of music that in the hands of a lesser writer or performer could come off as slightly cliqued sentimentality. It was perfectly formed song writing, albeit traditional. There were tender spooky moments when silence fell over the audience, even the children; the Symphony Hall became a calm oasis in the hectic town centre. There was one really standout Starsailor-esque song, Satellite, in which Greaney’s voice sounded something akin to Fleet Foxes vocalist Robin Pecknold and his haunting melodic hooks rolled over each other gracefully.

The folk soft-rock ballad, though it can be over earnest and sentimental, is an undeniably enduring genre and is a style that is perhaps unfairly ‘uncool’ now. However, there is a particular innocence in using the simple conventions of pop-rock. Melody seems to have fallen out of favour with our generation’s songwriters, which is a shame. These songs were beautifully affecting and Greaney’s simple bare bones, nuts and bolts craftsmanship of them drew a huge, warm, affectionate crowd. He also came out at the interval for a pint with the fans and was an utterly charming, humble bloke.

The second half premiered his swaggering new band. Complete with the usual pop-rock line-up of keys, bass and drums, they had the added extra of two female backing vocalists giving it a gospel vibe. The fidgeting children were captivated by the band. It soared through the vast foyer so most toes were tapping and heads bobbing by the second tune. Nevertheless, not everything had changed after the interval; there was yet another gorgeous ballad midway through with three part harmonies, ensuring that the audience were left smiling.

Words by James Grady

The Poets’ Place

As a creative writing student and writer of poetry, The Poet’s Place is an event I have been meaning to go to since it was first set up early this year. It happens twice a month on a Saturday between 2pm and4pm and is located on the lower-ground floor of Birmingham Central Library. It is hosted by West Midland’s Apples and Snakes, who also run the successful monthly spoken word event Hit the Ode and various other workshops and open-mic events around the city. You can sign up to the mailing list for more information by looking them up online.

Firstly, I will definitely be going back. The event is held in what feels like a mixture between the library’s basement and a conference room. The space is also shut off from the main library so you can get fully involved in the poetry and poets around you without feeling self-conscious. Most importantly there is plenty of tea and a fantastic selection of biscuits, which in itself is a good incentive.

There was wide a variety of people ranging from the poet laureate of Birmingham, Jan Watts, who this week was conducting interviews about people’s involvement within the Birmingham arts scene for the local radio. There was also a stand-up comedian who told the group that she had started writing poetry because her character wrote poetry. I also got chatting to the poet in residence of St. Martin’s Church (the church by the Bullring and markets) who told me about her workshops and the free art exhibitions the church regularly holds. However, most of the people there were aspiring poets and artists wishing to share work, talk about poetry and publishing routes or use the focused environment to sit quietly and write for an hour.

If you are thinking about starting to write poetry, read a lot of poetry or already write poetry this is a wonderful opportunity. Not only will you gain practical advice about writing from fellow poets, it is a place where any poetry related events around the West Midlands are advertised; I walked away with a list of four events which I would never have heard of otherwise. Birmingham has a thriving poetry scene, but it often remains unknown to people who are not a part of it already. Yet, meetings such as this contribute to the development and spreading of the genuine inspiration produced by everyone involved.

The next Poets’ Place will be held on Saturday 10th March.

Words by Alana Tomlin

Tell Me on a Sunday (part 1)

Birmingham Book Festival  sets out every year to cultivate the city with one statement standing out above the rest: ‘We want to hear everybody’s voice’. Not a traditionally literary city, it is sometimes difficult to track down more writer orientated events in Birmingham, and this is what the festival seeks to change. They do not simply want renowned authors to make their voices heard, but to encourage everyday people to engage with words as well. One of their newest events, Tell Me on a Sunday falls exactly into this calibre. Cat Weatherill, an internationally acclaimed story teller and author, is the curator for the monthly afternoon where she not only exhibits her own dramatic talents but invites ‘ordinary guys and girls’ to take the stage with her. The event states ‘We know you have a story in you’, and anyone is encouraged to ‘conjure a memory’ and ‘embellish it’, with the charming result that each story truly does appear ‘with truth at their heart’. The IKON Gallery is the perfect setting for this, since its emphasis on unconventional art, such as film and installation, invites works from all kinds of contemporary artists around Birmingham who these writers could easily be categorised as.

On the 19th February, performers and friends alike gathered in the IKON café for the event’s debut. The café is an intimate setting where a ‘Story Supper’ was to start the evening. Tables were moved around and pushed together so that storytellers and listeners were able to meet and greet each other. A sense of a writers’ community was created over the first glass of wine and, as Weatherill excitedly repeated, ‘cake!’ This was not only a networking opportunity for any aspiring writer, but a way of breaking down boundaries between storytellers and audience; it seemed that the guests that appeared onstage were not so much performing but sharing, as should be the nature of storytelling.

Each week is based around a specific theme listed on Tell Me on a Sunday’s website, and this one was ‘Off The Beaten Track’. This was evidently open to creative interpretation, and the result was a wonderful variety of stories tied no matter how loosely to the title. One that stood out was ‘Bruised Blondes’, told by local writer Gavin Young, which portrayed the long journey of the heart to find the one ‘that fits’. As Young put it, ‘the heart knows what it wants’, and he depicted this by describing the ‘sat nav’ heart that led him across the world (from South Africa to the UK no less) to find the right girl.

One advantage that Birmingham arguably has over other Book Festivals across the UK is the cultural diversity that the city houses. People from all over the world now inhabit the huge urban landscape, and this really added to the wealth of variation amongst the stories. We were treated to storytellers from South Africa (on the part of Young and Kate Lowe, an ‘erstwhile lunatic and gardener’), Brazil, the USA and even India, told by organiser of the Midlands Literary Edge Festival, Peter Chant. His, he explained, was a story of being ‘On the Beaten Track’ which described his family’s journey to their new home is Wolverhampton all the way from the Punjab. Aside from the sickness suffered by his sister on the boat, arguably the most harrowing part of the journey was when the children were confronted with unfamiliar food; they were well and truly far from home when the French idea of curry was salt and pepper. It was easy to feel joy too when we learnt that Chant’s family arrived in Wolverhampton to enormous quantities of traditional Punjab bread; the café never felt like more of an appropriate setting, since culture was inexplicably based around food and for each ethnic origin; indeed, ‘food means home’.

Tell Me on a Sunday is an excellent opportunity to see the breadth of literary talent that Birmingham has to boast. It is a free event, though it is recommended that people try to book in advance, and there are three afternoons still remaining. The next will be on the 25th March, and its theme will be ‘Hope and Glory’.

Words by Becca Inglis

Empirical @ mac

Last Saturday night saw the return of exuberant young quartet Empirical to Birmingham’s mac to perform a selection of pieces from their new release Elements of Truth. Echoing not only their musical influences but also their life philosophies in their playing, this band’s sound is something quite different from what you might usually expect from a small jazz ensemble.

As is customary for gigs in mac’s theatre, the audience awaits the performance in a low, blue light. In this case, just the near-silhouetted instruments appear on the stage; a double bass, drum kit and vibraphone all clustered tightly together in the centre. However, when Empirical took to the stage, this still, almost sombre image was soon forgotten, giving way to an instantly captivating rush of sound. The first tune, Out But In, began with clear-cut, angular melodies from Nathaniel Facey on alto saxophone, reflective of the sounds of horn players of the 1950s such as Charlie Parker and perhaps Ornette Coleman, as well as more modern players such as Martin Speake. What is most striking about these musicians is the way they play so tightly as a unit, underpinning each melody with stunning harmonic and rhythmic precision. This was apparent on rhythmically demanding tunes such as bassist Tom Farmer’s composition Simple Things, in which the motives, notes and textures appear uncomplicated, but are distributed in such a way over the pulse of the tempo that unique and mesmerising rhythms are created.

Each member of the quartet is seen to be equally responsible for the feel and texture of the music, the way the instruments layer to create the sound. This was particularly apparent in In the Grill, a tune entitled after a boxing reference in which the band place emphasis on spatial awareness in their playing, listening intently to the overall sound and adding their individual contributions accordingly. The vast array of colour tones that drummer Shaney Forbes achieved from the kit and cymbals in this piece and throughout the performance was especially fascinating, switching from using sticks, to mallets, to brushes, to his hands to create the right sound.

With an emphasis on well known sayings and philosophies for their music’s foundations, Empirical presented pieces such as like Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and the tune the new album takes it title from, The Element of Truth composed by Vibes player Lewis Wright. A stunning combination of ethereal, ringing chords with occasional striking dissonance, this thought provoking tune brought a wonderful clarity to the end of the set.

For anyone who believes that jazz is random, it just takes watching a band like Empirical to see how even the most free and unusual sounding jazz has solid underlying structure, underpinned by a precise sense of rhythm and patterns. Yet, equally, for anyone who is perhaps keen to intellectually decipher the exact, constant beat of such music, my advice would be to leave this to the experts. Empirical’s sound is both musically and intellectually experimental, pushing the boundaries of contemporary jazz. With a group of musicians so advanced their craft, the listener can entirely trust in them to deal with where the beat is (wherever it is) and just take pleasure in what is created.

Words by Anna Lumsden

Jam Jah Mondays @ the Bull’s Head

Moseley has a great reputation for housing a vast and eclectic selection of alternative music events, including its annual Mostly Jazz Festival (held in Moseley Park), Moseley Folk Festival and Sam Redmore’s electro swing night Freestyle run every Friday at the Bull’s Head. It is little wonder then that it is home to Birmingham’s longest standing reggae night, Jam Jah Mondays, which the Bull’ Head also hosts each week. This ought to be something of a pride and joy for the suburban pub, since Jam Jah’s collaboration of DJs, or ‘selectas’, are joined under the Record Company collective Friendly Fire Music (who boast widely popular artists such as Tippa Irie and Friendly Fire Band.) This much anticipated Monday night is in fact an opportune platform where Friendly Fire performers are able to showcase their music, as well as playing ‘strictly vinyl’ reggae, roots and dance hall classics for their eager audiences.
It turns out that the Jam Jah DJs, Robin Don, Bongo Damo and Lion Art, had quite a special show lined up for the 13th February; instead of the standard Valentine’s Day lovers’ meal in the centre of town, Jam Jah fans headed for the first floor of the Bull’s Head to be graced with their selectas’ ‘Pre My Valentine’ assortment of romantic reggae tunes. Considering Jam Jah’s reputation, it was a surprise to see the room so empty with only a few people dotted around the edges nursing their drinks. The music was fun, but there was no one there to enjoy it, and doubts were admittedly raised about the remainder of the evening. These reservations were however abated once Bongo Damo took to the decks. Accompanied by Lion Art, one of Friendly Fire Music’s longest affiliated artists, a crowd gathered on the dance floor; drinks were visibly abandoned around the room, whilst bags are coats were distributed on the floor at all sides so that their owners could be free to skank the proper way. Jam Jah Mondays certainly showed its true potential in the smiles on people’s faces, and in the heartfelt hugs that were exchanged by strangers.Of course the selectas could not be expected to keep to their sentimental theme all night (as they profess on their mixcloud website, ‘it’s difficult to keep the fire out of Jam Jah!’). It was towards the second half of the night when Buju Banton’s Love Sponge was interrupted by the iconic soaring tones that open Barrington Levy’s Under Mi Sensi (not exactly a typical Pre-Valentine’s Day song). This set the tone for the rest of the night; love themed lyrics were abandoned in favour of a more political agenda and songs such as Big Youth’s Soul Rebel and a live performance of New World Order by Lewe Irie. The night’s own MC Lion Art roused the crowd so much that midnight came around far too soon. Comfort had to be sought in the reassurance that reggae would be played into the early hours on another night, namely this Friday, 17th of February, at the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath.

Readers considering sampling this event must not be perturbed by the Bull’s Head’s non-student friendly drinks prices; offers are bountiful until half ten, by which time the crowd is raring to dance. Reggae of course is not for everyone, but for those still unconvinced to venture to Moseley on a Monday night, Jam Jah does post the setlist’s recording for each week on their website and mixcloud. Anyone who is considering sampling this event, or simply did not make it for one week, will be able to get an idea of the Jam Jah experience here, as well as broaden their reggae musical horizons.

Jam Jah Reggae is every Monday from 9pm @ the Bull’s Head and is free entry.

Words by Becca Inglis

Lucinda Hawksley: celebrating 200 years of Charles Dickens

The 7th of February this year marked the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth and a multitude of events will be going on all year to celebrate one of the most famous British authors. This anniversary was marked by Lucinda Hawksley, great, great, great granddaughter of the man in question, giving a talk in the National Portrait Gallery, London, on his family and social life two days later. Since then, Hawksley has been touring the country giving the same presentation to Dickens enthusiasts everywhere; on Sunday, she came to Birmingham’s Modern Art Gallery the Waterhall.

As a public speaker and lecturer on Dickens as well as 19th century literature, art and culture, Hawksley was well suited to presenting an in-depth talk. Focusing on the lesser known facts, Hawksley took her audience through Dickens’s life, starting with his parents and the debtor’s disgrace faced by his father, and ending with his humble tombstone. She emphasised the importance of certain figures in regards to his fame, such as George Hogarth, a journalist who first published Dickens’s work Sketches, under the pseudonym ‘Boz’, in the Evening Chronicle. Moreover, Hawksley drew attention to Dickens’s social impact on 19th century culture and his activist writings campaigning for reform. Indeed, she revealed his dramatic impact on the poor quality of the Yorkshire schools where bad children were sent to board. Upon hearing of two boys who were blinded by the awful conditions, Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby, which highlighted these issues and within two years all of these Yorkshire schools were shut down. These nuggets of information lent further authority to her argument and showed the audience how Dickens’ works were thoroughly important, focused on topical issues of the time. The talk was perfectly balanced between being in-depth enough to entertain any scholar of Dickens, and being accessible to those who have had no engagement with the texts; it was a brilliant preview to her book Charles Dickens written for the bicentenary.

This event is only one of many going on around Birmingham about the celebrated author, but with Hawksley’s extensive knowledge matched with her family ties it was a terrific introduction. She also referred to many important events occurring this year in regards to his anniversary. Hawksley disclosed that although Dickens stated in his will that he wanted no memorial in England, two statues are set to be erected this year, one in Portsmouth where he grew up, and one in Southwark, London to honour this influential figure. Moreover, it was revealed that the Royal Mail is set to produce Dickensian stamps which will be released in June, two of which are available for preview now. Hawksley provided a fantastic insight into why Dickens has become the icon he has today, and we she should look beyond the books to see the influence he had on his society.

For more Charles Dickens events, see the exhibition currently on display in Birmingham Univeristy’s Muirhead Tower Atrium.
Also keep an eye out for the up and coming production of Great Expectations @ the Crescent Theatre.

Words by Eleanor Campbell