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Live Review: Sofar Sounds at Birmingham Symphony Hall
Outgoing music editor Luke Charnley signs off with a review of Birmingham's latest Sofar Sounds, featuring a secret set from Peace among other highlights
As a soon to be graduate of the University of Birmingham, and someone who, as you may have noticed, enjoys a spot of music every now and then, I’ve made my rounds of Birmingham’s live music venues. As the second city, Birmingham hosts a vast array of national and international talent at its 02 venues and 2(!) arenas, yet I always find these live spaces lacking in character compared to some of Birmingham’s smaller gems such as the Hare and Hounds and the Flapper (R.I.P.).
“Mackampa was the sort of effectively mellow and relaxed act that have become a staple of the Sofar Sounds roster
It’s this issue that makes me appreciate the work of Sofar Sounds Birmingham in turning environments you wouldn’t typically expect into live music showcases: cafés are packed out with hushed crowds waiting for some unknown act to take the stage (usually a corner of the room adorned with fairy lights), the upstairs room of a bar becomes a secret gathering for a lucky few live music fans. Though it was started in London, and now exists in cities across the globe, the Birmingham branch of Sofar took a step upwards on Thursday night, as anyone in the 100-strong crowd in Birmingham’s cavernous Symphony Hall could tell you.
Now while the Symphony Hall is not the conventional, intimate Sofar environment that the brand is built on, the show features a twist. Rather than facing the stage from the huge tiered seats, the punters sat at the back of the stage facing the front, with the Sofar stage erected at the front of the stage between them and the seats. The effect was unique, as exemplified by the first act, Jordan Mackampa. A man with a guitar, alone on the stage, his spare guitar work sat comfortably behind his intense, soulful croon, which seemed to reach the ceiling with every note. Drawing the crowd in close with vulnerable songs about his childhood and family, Mackampa was the sort of effectively mellow and relaxed act that has become a staple of the Sofar Sounds roster.
Next up was a hidden gem of Birmingham’s live music scene; the enigmatic four-piece Chartreuse. Despite being yet to release any music officially, the band have cultivated a small and fervent following, and it’s not hard to see why. Songs such as ‘Burning the Midnight Oil’ are so impossibly catchy that I’m still humming along a few days out from hearing it muttered quietly into a microphone. I’ll reserve any real praise for when we have something a little more solid from them, as it almost feels like too much attention would scare them off at this early and fickle stage, but if a studio session can do these live cuts justice then we might just have some new Birmingham icons on hand.
Speaking of which, the third and final act of the night had been a source of considerable hype leading up to the show: while kept under wraps, rumours were swirling in the breaks between sets. I imagine more than a few guessed the surprise, but that didn’t make it any less exciting when B-Town hitmakers and Midlands indie royalty Peace sauntered onto the stage for an acoustic set. Renowned around these parts for 2013’s In Love and it’s follow-up Happy People, their Thursday night set indicated a rawer side to the band’s heavily-produced indie-pop veneer, stripping back their ‘summery’ sound for something a little more, dare I say it, real. There was no ‘1998 (Delicious)’, no ‘California Daze’, no (to the pleasure of the audience) ‘Kindness is the New Rock and Roll’ or ‘Power’.
“There’s a certain intensity to the performance that gives the sense that Peace are angry at something
Halfway through a performance of fan-favourite ‘Someday’, frontman Harrison Koisser abruptly stops, refusing to play on: ‘Some things are better left untouched’. There’s a certain intensity to the performance that gives the sense that Peace are angry at something, surprising given the bands recent claims about kindness being the new rock and roll. Nevertheless, the acoustic performance is absorbing, filled with memorable moments such as Harrison’s convincing Yannis impression during a cover of ‘Milk and Black Spiders’, an emotive performance of new album highlight ‘From Under Liquid Glass’, and a leftfield closer in the form of a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt’. In replicating Trent Reznor’s slow and foreboding build to a noisy and cathartic finish, Peace brought a welcome change of pace that, strangely, suited Koisser’s vocal range. Maybe an industrial rock album is the change of pace that the band needs.
Much has already been said of Sofar’s redefinition of secret and intimate live shows, yet it’s obvious the world of good it is doing for Birmingham; a city that too often overlooks its arts and culture in favour of corporate investment to build more retail complexes. In what has been a dark year for the city’s nightlife, it’s worth reiterating the importance of supporting local music, be it a band in Selly Oak or a club night in Digbeth. The second city produces some great music, and we owe it to each other to listen.
Keep up with Sofar Sounds Birmingham via their website.