Writer Sadie Barnett / Photographer Sam Aves
London based post punk band GHUM take to the stage with an almost intimidating display of suspense as they begin to play ‘Rivers’, the closing song from their 2022 album Bitter. As guitarist Jojo Khor and bassist Marina MJ slowly start up behind her, lead singer Laura Guerrero Lora steps up to the mic. Clad in a black leather trench jacket, she looks every part the rockstar. I hear someone behind me exclaim that she “looks like Stevie Nicks!”
For a brief moment, Lora stares defiantly into the crowd. Then, drummer Vicki Ann begins to play and the entire band is transformed. As she sings, Lora dances to the drum beat with a captivating abandon, drawing the audience in with an energy that doesn’t fade throughout the set.
The drums, already a pounding presence, only become louder as the band speak directly to the engineers, asking for more sound. “Yeah more for me please, thanks,” asks Ann politely, before proceeding to shake the very foundations of the room.
GHUM’s sound is an exciting one, ranging from grunge, with songs such like ‘Shallow’ which show off Lora’s vocal range with dragged-out shouts of “you don’t know me”, to punkier songs like ‘Perro’. ‘Perro’ is my favourite of their set, sung entirely in Spanish as a homage to the Spanish and Brazilian heritage of the group.
The song tells a story of animalistic rage, a message that – despite the majority of the audience not speaking the language – is clearly translated, proven by the crowd who are headbanging enthusiastically. Towards the end of their set, GHUM pay tribute to the main act, telling us that it is “an honour to be on tour with such amazing women”, and dedicate their next song ‘1000 men’ to Big Joanie.
By the end of the track, the crowd are chanting along to the lyrics: “a thousand men can’t keep me safe!” It is a fierce reminder of the message of feminism at the heart of this tour, and a heartwarming moment given all of the work Big Joanie has done to make space for minorities in the punk and DIY scene.
This space is one that is clearly appreciated, not only by the band, but also by the audience – which is conspicuously lacking men.
The crowd cheers raucously as GHUM leaves the stage and the room proceeds to get even more tightly packed as we wait for Big Joanie. With all eyes ahead, it’s a bit of a surprise when they casually make their way through the audience and onto the stage.
“It’s nice to be in Birmingham!” shouts drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone, to answering shouts of “0121!”
“This is actually Steph’s hometown gig,” she tells us, gesturing to singer and guitarist Stephanie Phillips and prompting another round of cheering. There’s nothing a Brummie crowd loves more than a Birmingham artist.
Big Joanie open with ‘Cactus Tree’, a standout single from Back Home (2022), the album that they are touring. This song combines a mesmerising blend of rock and folk with airy vocals and heavily distorted guitar over a strong drum beat. It is a striking opening.
Taylor-Stone in particular stands out here. In a rarely-seen example of a drummer taking centre stage, she plays standing up at the front, wearing a floral dress that matches the flowers draped across her instrument. It’s a thoughtful addition to their unique staging, with Phillips, Taylor-Stone, and bassist Estella Adeyeri standing in a straight line facing the crowd, joined at the back by Vanessa Govinden, bassist from Whitelands.
The crowd is joyful as the band plays through Back Home, bopping about the stage, smiling at audience members flinging their limbs at the front. To the crowd’s absolute delight, Taylor-Stone tells us these Brummies might be the “most enthusiastic crowd we’ve ever had, even with our big show in London!”
This, of course, cues more dancing, a celebration reinforced by their next song, ‘Confident Man’.
Again, the strong feminist politics of Big Joanie’s music rings through. Phillips tells us: “we shouldn’t admire those straight, white, greedy men”, who’s “morals aren’t really up to scratch”.
I nod fervently, hoping that the men stood in front of me obscuring mine and my friends’ view internalise this message. Although the topic is anger-inducing, the song’s bouncy synth line keeps us upbeat throughout.
We get a few throwbacks from the band’s 2018 album Sistahs, and are informed the women who appear on the album’s cover are in the audience tonight. The whole crowd giggles and cheers as the pair wave excitedly.
Through regular interludes, Big Joanie encourage moments of solidarity, with women, with gender minorities, with black and other POC communities, with workers and strikers. The crowd listens, rapt. I am sure I am not alone in thinking this kind of solidarity has been noticeably absent from so many punk shows recently, another reminder of why Big Joanie remain such a refreshing change for many of us.
We cheer in agreement as Big Joanie remind us: “even in our protest movements, there’s still issues we need to iron out.” The tightly packed audience moves even closer together, inspired. I see arms around shoulders and friends hugging, the crowd embracing in solidarity.
Big Joanie finish on their 2020 cover of Solange’s ‘Cranes in the Sky’.
As with many fans, this cover was my entry point into the band. We wait in quiet anticipation as Taylor-Stone begins the slow drum beat with a shaker in one hand, Phillips picks up a tambourine to accompany her vocals, and Adeyeri’s blissful harmonies elevate the main body of the sound.