Words by Ed King / Pics by Jonathan Morgan
“Sorry mate… we’ve been full for ages.” I have rarely seen a bouncer look so tired and apologetic.
I’m late. I’ve missed the support acts. And had I not been able to get professional help (not that kind) would be watching the show from outside; my face pressed against the steaming glass of The Yardbird like an aging Tiny Tim.
(Thankfully Jonathan Morgan is more time aware, and a full selection of shots from all the acts will be up on our Flickr page later this week)
Call Me Unique (or Unique) warned us it would be busy; her one woman promotional powerhouse grabbing attention from this city and beyond, so I have no room to argue. In fact, none of us have much room to do anything. I ask around; apparently The Yardbird started to fill up from 5pm, and by the time the show started, at 7:30pm, it was one in/one out.
The reason we’re all here is simple. Unique made an EP, Urban Gypsy, promoted it through her online channels and organsied a free party to “say thank you for all your support.” But it’s a Monday, Unique is still operating unsigned and without a marketing budget. The Yardbird is rammed. That’s some healthy support.
I’ve seen Unique several times, the last being at The Bull’s Head whilst covering Sam Redmore’s Freestyle event, and in my mind she is always worth watching. But her Urban Gypsy EP surprised me; showing what I’m settling to call a ‘mature’ move in her music. It’s brilliant, understated and honestly exciting. Plus her partnership with the EP’s producer, Professor F (founder of 33 Beats), seems to be working.
So in production, good times ahead – but how that translates on stage is yet to be seen. I look around the room bursting with expectation, familiarity and frightening potential consequences. With no pun intended… drum roll please…
Unique is introduced by stand up comedienne, Annette Fagan. After a bizarrely fervent shout out to all the bus routes in Handsworth (I whoop a little at 11a, 11c and 74) the lady of the hour jumps on stage, looking especially smart in a black & white patterned jacket and red round rimmed hat. She’s clearly excited, and with hands free of guitar begins to own the stage and invite us in a little.
Unique opens with ‘Money, Money, Money’, warming her vocals with a 1,2,3… BAM; and as the band breaks into a calypso rhythm, all our shoulders struggle for space and I remind myself how she can sing. Unique has an established range, one she can manipulate without too much effort; with every pitch delivered by the right amount of energy. Or at least that’s how it feels to us vocal proles in the crowd.
The band strip back and bring us neatly into the tempered beats of ‘Here’, the first showcase from Urban Gypsy. ‘Here’ is a sensual tune, in both lyrics and feel, and a warm inclusion on the EP.
Smash joins Unique on stage, giving her somewhere to direct those Bette Davis eyes, and dutifully stands as she projects the track through him to us. It works. Its works so well I want to applaud, and to heartily join in the proposed audience participation – although the latter would have meant me declaring misplaced intentions to the three blokes I’m sandwich between. I wait until the end of the song and put my hands in the air.
Next is the three word freestyle, a regular format where Unique asks for… you get the idea. Seemingly the audience is quite sexually charged, as ‘sex’, ‘desire’ and ‘control’ get shouted out from the front row. And once ‘food’ is added to the list, the room gets a little bit hotter. I will never look at a cheese sandwich in the same way again.
My favourite from the EP, ‘Stranger’, is up next and delivered with aplomb – well placed percussion giving it the right breathing space. Unique is an artist that sings what she says, which is one of the reasons I’ve been so impressed with her in the past; but as she tells us, really tells us ”I’m the stranger…” I have to reevaluate the credit I give her. This is no child on stage, no one’s pretending, and the rest of us should sit up and listen.
‘Bombs & Wars’ is the next proffering from Urban Gypsy, with a guest appearance from Malik MD7 giving Unique a chance to spar against a talented MC. Again, the live performance trounces the EP – with the track’s dark melody owning The Yardbird, and its lyrics coming off stage with fierce control. The band even breaks into a faster tempo, giving more scope to an already solid performance.
The EP’s title track come up next and washes comfortably by, until verse 2 when Unique’s confident growl punches “Urrrrban Gypsy” into the crowd. We’re not likely to forget the reason we’re here.
A well loved Unique staple, ‘The Wife’, closes her main set and gets half the crowd singing it for her. Then after a full band introduction, and a personal plea to support local artists and venues – a message I’ve seen her deliver on stage before, Unique talks us through the pretense of an encore and introduces ‘Sholow’ – another well seasoned portfolio piece.
I’m not quite sure what happens next. The last thing I remember is feeling hot/cold and singing prompted syllables over and over. Unique delivers the last song of her set, one I’ve seen her perform before, with extraordinary accomplishment. Something somewhere has turned this singer into a performer. Tight, measured, heartfelt; everything you would want to see, hear and believe. I’m edging dangerously close to sycophantic prose, or empurpled at least, so I’ll simply refer to my notebook. I just wrote ‘VOICE’, with several underlines.
Unique’s Urban Gypsy EP is the serious evolution of an already talent artist. And tonight’s live show brought out pieces hidden in production. That’s not to say the production should change, far from it, but it’s exciting to think when her album appears what extras we’ll get when we see it performed.
I know Unique is committed to what she does, and has grafted her way across the circuit garnering well earned support. But this is different, this is proper. This is the start of another ladder that could reach a significant height.
So my advice is three fold: first – get a copy of Urban Gypsy, it’s a free download on Unique’s website. Second – donate some money in exchange for Urban Gypsy, it’s a free download on Unique’s website.
And third – next time Unique plays in Birmingham get there early. Or cross your fingers for an unusually understanding doorman.
For more on Call Me Unique, including digital downloads of her Urban Gypsy EP, visit http://callmeunique.co.uk