It would be unfair to call Colin Silcocks a promoter. Promoters arrange gigs to make money, whereas for the past thirty odd years, Colin – under the banner of the Rockin’ 50s Club – has arranged gigs in and around Birmingham with one aim and one only – to bring great rock’n’roll to anyone who wants to come. The Birmingham Powerhouse all-dayers of the 1980s were legendary; I don’t think there was anything else that had the same draw for the London crowd who would make the pilgrimage to the Midlands en masse for a full day and night of great bands in a big venue. And thirty years on, he’s still running those all-dayers, often at a hefty personal financial risk, but driven by nothing more selfish than the pleasure of standing back and watching a room full of folk digging a succession of good bands and DJs.
And so it was for the second Birmingham Bash on 16 July. The Irish Centre in Digbeth High Street is an ideal venue for a big rock’n’roll gig. Close to Birmingham City Centre (and within a spit of the bus station), it’s also near to lots of budget hotels for those who want to make a full night of it without driving home. Digbeth’s a fascinating area in its own right, full of decaying industrial architecture fast falling victim to demolition and replacement by characterless new builds; parking alongside a derelict factory is in itself a throwback to London gigs of many years back and I suspect is a luxury we won’t enjoy for long. We arrived early in the hope of finding some good vintage outlets in the nearby Custard Factory complex (no, that’s not an ironic name – it used to be the Bird’s Custard Factory); sadly, Birmingham doesn’t seem to have cottoned on to the potential attraction of a vintage quarter, preferring to pursue yet more big branches of high street chains, but that just meant we weren’t distracted and arrived at the gig in good time for a full afternoon and evening of music.
First on stage were Satan’s Barber Shop, a local band playing a mix of wild rockabilly and psychobilly-influenced material. I think the current term is ‘neo rockabilly’ (on the basis that everything has to be pigeon-holed); not quite our thing, but you couldn’t fault their enthusiasm and energy, and it certainly got the afternoon off to a lively and loud start. Next on the bill was a band I was keen to catch, and one Mrs M hadn’t seen for a long time, the Surfin’ Gorillas. Fronted by the multifaceted Clive Osborne, who’s been in more top rockin’ bands than either of us could possibly remember, they’re a highly proficient outfit playing a wide range of rock’n’roll and surf instrumentals, with Clive switching between guitar and sax, and providing the occasional vocals. The set blended the numbers you’d expect, including lots of Link Wray and Dick Dale material, with less familiar original and self-penned numbers, plus of course the signature Go Go Gorilla. Great stuff, and just the thing for a warm July afternoon.
The arrival of Johnny Flame and the Dragons set the tone for the rest of the gig as the backing line-up got no rest from there on in. Backing both Johnny Flame and, as the Shufflers, Gene Gambler, we were treated to a non-stop feast of hard-core rockabilly, mixing new material with faithful, but not carbon copy, renditions of classic tracks. In between the bands, honours on the decks were shared between two stalwarts of the London scene, Little Carl and Be Bop Kaz (Fowler), and Little Annie Leigh. Annie exemplified the crowd of youngsters at the gig, looking good and hitting the dance floor with energy and style – it’s something we see too infrequently in a scene where the majority appear to have been around for a good few years (says he being kind to his contemporaries). Loyalty to the scene is great, but it was fantastic to see our contemporary successors having just as good a time as we ever managed – and with a lot more stamina!
And so to the headline act of the day, talented singer, songwriter and guitarist, 50s-influenced graphic artist, and all-round Wunderkind, Frankfurt-based Marcel Bontempi, accompanied as ever by the equally talented Miss Ira Lee. We caught Marcel for the first time at the Rockabilly Rave last year and since then the album collection of his tracks, complete with self-deprecating and witty sleeve notes and eye-watering graphics, has never been far from the player. We were delighted to find he was playing within easy reach of home and so had booked up months in advance. He’d flown in especially for the gig that day, returning on the Sunday, and there was a definite sense of anticipation when was spotted in the auditorium, sporting trademark Spiderman haversack and absorbing the atmosphere.
And what a performance. Whether delivering the odd quirky cover, dipping into Surfin’ Bird as the intro to one of his many self-penned tracks, or cutting loose with some searing guitar licks, Herr Bontempi hits the groove from the start and doesn’t stop till he’s finally left the stage after being dragged back for encores with the crowd still shouting for more. The backing band were working hard, too – no resting on their laurels as they launched into their third set of the afternoon. If I had one disappointment, it was that I couldn’t quite catch the Anglo-German patter between numbers as he and Miss Ira traded quips. He’s a real treat – an individual immersed in the sound, look and style of the 1950s but with his own original, but wholly respectful take on it all. I’ve posted links to Marcel’s facebook page before, but a new find is his Blog, with lots of examples of his artwork. You can find it here – and it’s well worth a browse.
Thanks to Colin, and all the bands and DJs for yet another great music-filled day. Without folk like you, the scene would be a much poorer place. Colin’s got a string of events planned for the future – a few flyers below, but check out the Rockin’ 50s Club website for more details and how to buy tickets in advance.