Sitting on the edge of Kings Norton, the Tower of Song feels as an old lyric come to life. The dim lights, old furniture, and paintings of musicians plastering the wall, harkens back to a bygone time where the room would be filled with smoke, liquor, and music. The Tower will and always will be a den of musicians. Though, now in its ninth year standing, the venue has started to diversify its acts to secure its longevity, this has done little to affect the quality of entertainment. Whilst there are still show stopping blues and folk nights put on by the regulars, the venue has shown an increased penchant toward showcasing non-local and/or younger musicians. This is by no means a bad thing, in fact to my eyes (as a regular) there has been a great increase in newer musicians playing to more consistent audiences. It is unfortunate to say then however, that in celebration of the nine year anniversary, we saw very little of these fine qualities on display.
Sam Cornwell & Louise Monet [rating: 3]
The opening act was a couple of folk musicians, which I had listened to before on the typical acoustic-y Wednesday nights. During those nights the room is silent, you could even hear a pen drop – which definitely lends itself to their style of music. Certainly the duo, Sam on guitar and + Louise on keyboard, were a decent act but there was simply something missing. Each of their songs were hit and miss with me. The two would exchange rolls frequently, each taking turns singing, and also mixing up which played rhythm and which played over the top of the melody. The ones that stuck to me were when Louise was singing and playing keyboard throughout, with Sam showing off by adding in the occasional licks and harmonies. Overall the set was incredibly lyrically based, the songs weren’t particularly catchy or flashy, but there was a certain melancholy in the words they sang. I had listened to an extract of the Tower of Song live compilation album Tom, the owner had sent me months ago and though the songs were the same they weren’t speaking to me nearly as much. For some reason the act was off, everything was in the right key, not a bum note to be heard, in fact it was all pretty fine. Maybe that’s the operant word here: ‘fine’. All in all they were just missing that special something that really made it stick out.
The Tom Martin Band [rating: 3.5]
Tom Martin, the owner of the Tower, took much more than the name from Leonard Cohen, his songs feel like they were ripped straight out of Leonard’s early career. One thing of note in Tom’s music is he takes his time, you can hear every string and each note. The coarse vocals wash over the melody, as his songs physically yearn for a time long lost.
However like a crisp you find at the bottom of your pocket, the Tom Martin Band is never whole. Often you fill find Tom paired with a pantheon of musicians to make up for the lack in bass and sax/keys, yet this time we were only missing the bass player. On keyboard and saxophone you had Pete Wingate, who seemed to transition so smoothly between his instruments that I was often stunned by the sudden brass inclusion as I took my eyes off him to make notes. On percussion was Glynn Phillips. I use the word percussionist loosely as there is little else I could use to describe Glynn’s style. Combining wind chimes, congas, cajon, and about 15 other instruments that I simply fail to name, Glynn adds a fluid assortment of rhythm and effects that at times borders on psychic accompaniment to Tom’s spontaneous style (which I will touch on in a minute). Glynn said to me that the 18 instruments he used was him trying to cut down, usually using around 30. When asked why so many, he said he was “painting colours with sound”, I said to him that was so poetic that I simply had to write it down. It may come to no surprise then that Glynn also does spoken word poetry and (intriguingly) gentlemen’s hip-hop (aka Chap-Hop). Lastly you have Helena Rosewell whom is probably one of my favourite Cellist (not that I know many). Whilst some may question the place of a cello in a band it is clear to any that listen to their music that she and Tom go hand in hand perfectly. In fact having listened to all four of Tom’s CDs my absolute favourite was the one with just himself and Helena, it was minimalist but worked perfectly. I’ve used the word fluid many times in the review, and that is the best way to describe the set. Except to switch guitars Tom barely stops playing, telling stories or doing off the cuff lyrics whilst playing a melody or tuning his guitar. Honestly, it’s anyone’s guess as to when (if ever) he’ll finally go back into a song, but somehow the band picks up on some nonchalant cue and the music kicks back in. To accomplish this it seems the band have been playing together for no less than 15 years – though some for more.
Yet as great as the band is together and have been on previous nights, I could not help but notice a certain sombre tone to the night. The best way to put it is this, the greatest part of the Tower is the people who go there. You can go see any gig there and it would not be out of place for a harmonica or sax player from the audience to get called up to just randomly join in and for it to sound beautiful. Perhaps that’s what this gig was missing. In one gig I’ve seen Tom do blues, rock, folk switching between an acoustic, electric, and then a banjo, with a harmonicist joining in, with the addition of no less than three sax players! I feel like that’s what this gig was missing, that specific flare known only to the Tower. In all likelihood, the lack of bass guitar probably didn’t help this either. To put it bluntly however, much like the opening act there were a lot of good things on display but nothing that really struck me. Maybe next year.