Words by Charlotte Heap / Pics by Paul Stringer
Stepping into Birmingham Town Hall for the Big Birmingham Soul Night is like stepping back in time. Veterans of the Motown scene, clad in the classic wide-legged Oxford Bags, plimsolls and Ben Sherman polo shirts, dominate the giant wooden dance floor with their distinctive moves.
The spins, kicks; and shuffles (equally exhausting and joyful to watch) are tricky for a Northern Soul newbie to emulate but this doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of this all-nighter. The Night Owl, itself a relative newcomer to the scene, presents an impressive line up of DJs in an equally impressive venue. The listed splendour of the Town Hall and its sprung dance floor dovetails nicely with the nostalgia of original vinyl sounds. The bill, topped by legendary DJ Colin Curtis, kept the dance floor full throughout with famous 4-4 beats.
For many of the dancers, this is clearly a relished opportunity to relive their youth and, truthfully, that’s what gives the evening its authenticity. There’s a cathartic, carefree atmosphere: a sense that these ageing Mods have been waiting for this very moment to unleash years of pent up rhythm. Strangely, it’s the younger attendees that seem almost peripheral to the action, imitating but never quite improving upon the confidence of the originators.
The music, both in the stunning main room and downstairs bar, ranges from the familiar to the rare – reflecting the original scene. DJs like Curtis hunted down American Soul 45s and brought them to the hungry masses in the North West where DJs and dancers alike tried to outdo each other with the hardest-to-come-by vinyl and the hardest-to-execute moves. Memorabilia and record stalls add to the sense that this is an event for the serious Soul fan.
The tiny downstairs bar proved to be the only real detraction: the valiant staff struggled to quench the thirst of the sweating crowd in good time. For the dedicated ‘Soulies’ this made little difference; for the more casual participant it was an annoying inconvenience. This could be easily rectified should the organisers decide to partner again, which they should.
(Ed’s note… after some post party exploration, we were told there had been another bar lurking at the back of the entrance level but most people didn’t know about it. BBSN organisers were already on the case, so next time… please drink responsibly.)
The Night Owl, recently voted Best New Venue by Birmingham Mail, has clearly filled a niche at its bar in Digbeth: it is the only dedicated Motown destination in the Midlands in decades. There’s an apparent appetite for Northern Soul and this partnership was an effective advert for the budding Birmingham Soul scene.
The issue for the organisers now is how to convert the nostalgia into real hunger for more. For the scene to thrive where previously it had withered and died, it will need to attract new, and, dare I say it, younger disciples.
For more from The Night Owl, visit www.nightowlbirmingham.com
For more from the Town & Symphony Halls, visit www.thsh.co.uk