Second City kids on a Friday night out: lads fresh from the cash point supping from bottles of beer, girls in their party frocks clocking the competition coming in. The Sunflower Lounge is rammed. Something in my aged mind triggers a vague memory that long before the congregation gathered here was conceived this might’ve been a quiet gay bar, one of only about three dotted round the town. Down the road and left there’s a whole gay quarter now. No one bats an eyelid at these things anymore, nor should they. But I begin to remember the past more clearly: When expressions like tolerance and diversity weren’t bandied around but things were generally okay, except for rock music. My teeth grind as I recall how the city fathers ran that out of town.
But the financial shenanigans of yesteryear are a story for another day, suffice that the guerrilla warfare Birmingham’s clubs and pubs are waging to bring back the beating heart of Brumbeat to its inner city streets is hard won, but worth every inch. For, yes, although we latterly declare this the birthplace of heavy metal with Broad Street’s Walkway of Fame enshrined with stars bearing Ozzy and Iommi’s names, rock ‘n’ roll hereabouts has always had influences that have been wide and far-reaching; its central England locality and ethnic diversity ensuring that. Thus tonight we are here for four lads from Castle Vale, despite its scenic sounding name hardly the most welcoming of suburbs. Broken Witt Rebels themselves however are a totally different prospect.
They hit the ground running with ‘Low’ the first track from their recent EP, the hard crunch of guitar, cocaine-chopping motion of drums and laid back roll of bass anchoring the sound – one that’s deep but incredibly clear for such a small PA within a low ceilinged room. Wailing above it all is Danny Core, testifying with conviction like James Brown or Solomon Burke. As they follow with ‘Cloud My Day’ and ‘Howlin’ his more spasmodic hand gestures find him embodied by the late Joe Cocker if not Family’s Roger Chapman from up the road in Leicester.
The band as a whole are being likened to early Kings of Leon, and sure, you can feel that in some of the songs structures, but by God they’re tight as hell tonight, raging with the kind of determination the original Dr Feelgood used to hammer you to the walls with as they drill through their own brand of hardened R’n’B with a smattering of rocked out soul. The crowd are with them; extended family and friends are obvious among the gathering but you don’t get this many sweaty faces dancing, smiling and singing along with such conviction unless they believe in the music. It’s a pokey little place downstairs, with girls lining the staircase to catch a better glimpse of the stage, a health & safety nightmare quite frankly but you can’t help thinking this must have been what The Cavern was like back in the early sixties and while you know no one’s ever going to scale the heights of The Beatles again you do get a glimpse of what Brian Epstein must’ve felt when he first set eyes on them.
Following in quick succession, ‘Queen Bee’ buzzes away next and despite the band’s apparent self-belief when they play a song, between numbers bass player Luke Davis and singer Core repeatedly head to a microphone and express sincere thanks to everyone for coming to the show. EP title track ‘Georgia Pine’ is a more epic slow burner, and it is here where the Midlands’ musical diversity hits home with James Tranter one minute picking out ska-skipping six string licks then tearing down his fretboard with all the fury of The Move’s Trevor Burton. From time to time Core will himself wrap a guitar round his neck, and it’s effectively used on the latter of what he declares to be two new numbers ‘God Knows’ and ‘Come On Over’ – Here they evoke the magic of another sixties outfit, The Small Faces, with the number falling somewhere in between ‘Little Tin Soldier’ and ‘All Or Nothing’. Marriott, Lane and McLagan must be grinning up in Heaven.
For the home stretch, Tranter is again raging away on guitar come the end of ‘Getaway Man’ but what has those of us new to Broken Witt Rebels looking perplexed is about a third of the audience taking off a shoe and waving it like their dads did cigarette lighters at rock concerts. Shoe rhyming with the oft-mentioned “you” in the song being the only apparent reason I can think of. A strange lot we Brummies. But the band has its eye on wider horizons, the rock ‘n’ roll rage of ‘Guns’ offering a glimpse of American dreams to be clutched at with the wary knowing hook-line tag that “They burn bright like a cigarette”.
Again the audience’s familiarity becomes apparent as folk clamber up on stage and hog microphone stands, with barely room for the band itself to be seen as they finish with the sing-a-long Brit rock of ‘Shake Me Down’. Can this experience extend to a wider stage, with an indifferent audience waiting to be won over? You can bet your money on Broken Witt Rebels giving it a damned good try!