Stefan Kucharczyk finds clowns, cheerleaders and some cutting-edge music at the Gigbeth festival.
Searching for something ominously titled 'Project X' in a warehouse venue in the dark depths of Digbeth on Saturday night, something clearly isn't right. This pinnacle performance, crowning the Gigbeth weekend, Birmingham's flagship local music and arts festival, promises a 'diverse, never-to-be-repeated spectacular'.
But, again, something definitely isn't quite right.
Is it that demonic clown blowing bubbles into the entrance courtyard? Is it the semi-deranged Bacchic priestesses swirling around us with incense, laurel wreaths and cackling madly as they pour salt on to the floor out of their Wellington boots?
A stroke of genius or pretentious nonsense? The brainchild of Birmingham artist Rich Batsford and drawing together performance theatre, film, dance, comedy, music and a pinch of madness, 'Project X' at the Rainbow Warehouse embodies all the elements and attitudes that have made the Gigbeth festival such a cult success.
Breathing life into one of Birmingham's less salubrious quarters and squeezing the Midlands' most promising artists into one weekend, Gigbeth puts the family fun firmly to one side and embraces the darker side of the region's cutting edge, artistic talent.
Anyway, let's get back to that clown. 'Project X' is one continual circus, seamlessly drifting from one experience to the next. With acoustic jam sessions, Islamic drumming from Aashiq al-Rasul and a hilarious dose of vinegar from some of the city's poets, the Bacchae mingle and the audience warms up to this most unconventional show.
As ambient music plays and autumnal leaves slowly cover the floor, an impressive capoeira display sets a steady beat and strange, shady characters dart through the warehouse theatre's shadowy background. Building to a frenzied climax, seemingly innocuous spectators suddenly spring to life as part of the performance working to confuse and disorientate. That clown is back. This time he's chasing a cheerleader who might also be a cat. Weird.
With a disturbing, lurching assault upon the senses, 'Project X' is an intelligent and unique show destabilising the established role of the 'spectator' in performance theatre and drawing you in to an impressively eclectic and complex mix of art forms.
Gigbeth is nothing if not eclectic. More compact than its sister showcase, ArtsFest, and, despite erratic and chaotic timetabling issues, Gigbeth offers music lovers a wide choice of events in a small, hip environment.
Now in its second year, the Gigbeth is a celebration of regional talent with a diverse shake-up of locally grown artists rubbing shoulders with some of the bigger names on the scene.
The festival's success, however, aptly relies on the quality of the local musicians and as emo-stars Boy Kill Boy, scheduled to headline the Friday night programme, pulled out due to illness/asymmetrical haircut emergency, the thronging crowds hardly missed them.
Who needs the celebrities when there is a wealth of budding, local talent on offer? We were certainly not to be disappointed.
The Moseley Folk Festival tent was just one attraction at the Custard Factory and hosted the festival's folk contingent on Saturday evening. A collection of acoustic performances, there were some star turns from the region's emerging folk and country acts.
With Ben Calvert in fine voice, Birmingham's Vijay Kishore was a notable presence, warming a bustling crowd in the November cold with his flawless, fluid vocals and music, drawing inspiration from Jeff Buckley and from Asian melodic influences of Ravi Shankar. Having signed a publishing deal with Zomba Music earlier this year, Vijay Kishore should be a nailed-on breakthrough act for the very near future.
Away from folk moodiness, the Glee Club hosted a short, but inarguably sweet, line-up on Friday night, illuminated by a wonderful showing from Solihull's Anna Palmer. A self-confessed reformed 'chav', Anna Palmer, aka Little Palm, has quickly become one of the city's best kept musical secrets. Transforming bluesy, piano ballads into quirky, moving three-minute wonders, she is perhaps Birmingham's answer to song-stresses Regina Spektor and Tori Amos.
Certainly, no Brummie music festival would be complete without a score of shoe-staring indie rock outfits and this year's Gigbeth-goers did not go without. The Sanctuary venue in the heart of Digbeth played home to most of the acts and, throughout the weekend, skinny-jeaned teens and bassists with mop haircuts jammed it out.
There were passable turns from city indie rockets Simon vs Romance, ska crew Cueball 8, grimy Streets-esque Scarlot Harlots and local popsters Mr Derry, reprising their appearance from this year's ArtsFest, were again in good form.
Standing out amidst the eyeliner and razor-gelled fringes, however, was a fine set from Birmingham's highly promising and impeccably dressed Envy and Other Sins. Pretentious, witty and raising suggestions of the Libertines, Roxy Music and the Super Furry Animals, this is edgy funk-pop that even your mom would like. With dates in London and a support slot with British Sea Power next month, their recent single Man Bites God might be a shrewd investment.
As Boy Kill Boy pulled out, it was left to Wulfrunian indie rock and rollers Guile and local act Destroy Cowboy to fill the gap. A tall order for any aspiring pop crew, but they at least managed to fill the packed Barfly venue with noise and enthusiasm even if it was all a bit 1997. Despite the modest venues and being held in an area desperately in need of investment, the sheer quality of the music on offer is evidence that it Gigbeth, if it can overcome its organisational problems, is set to cement its place as a major fixture on the national festival circuit.
With the sumptuous voice of Vijay Kishore and the unbridled imagination of Richard Batsford standing out amongst the mass of creativity on show this weekend, Birmingham is proving that it has the talent at its fingertips to become a recognised and thriving force in the British arts scene.