Victoria Pub, Birmingham
The “Hit the Ode” soubriquet name-checks in parody a 1960’s hit made popular by Ray Charles.
But maybe event impresario Bohdan Piasecki should think about re-branding it after Peter Frampton’s 1970’s hit “Something’s Happening” ? Because the buzz before, during, and after this event, was quite extraordinary for a Spoken Word evening.
National Poetry Day Director Jo Bell had travelled down from Manchester even though she was flying tomorrow to the Strokestown Poetry Festival in Ireland in which she is shortlisted for a prize, Ray Antrobus had travelled up from London, Phoenix had travelled from Leicester and Lisa Ventura from Worcester, all to see a brilliant headline bill ( and those are just the ones who handed their travelogues to me!).Three hours is a long time to listen to Spoken Word performance, and it is a tribute to the variety and quality of what was on offer that the time flew by for a packed house.
Topping the Bill was Polarbear. Although a writer, performer and poet of national, and international, repute he is also one of our own, now living in London, but originally from Birmingham. So this was very much a home-coming performance with plenty of acknowledgements to friends in the audience.
He might have spoken his work on stages all over the world from Glastonbury to Kuala Lumpur via Ljubljana and California. But tonight at the Victoria he was where he belonged, back on home turf. He did not disappoint. Looking unnervingly like Mick Hucknall, circa “Holding back the Years”, he enthralled the crowd with his trademark hip-hop tinged stagecraft and lyricism.
At one point he stopped to describe himself as a storyteller, and that is a fair observation. A storyteller who uses rhyme but who specialises in the moment. There is no conventional narrative, although the stories are linear. You hook up for the ride and then get taken to wherever he decides to take you, where you started from, and where you end up, are less important than where you are at any given point in his poem, the ultimate in living for the moment.
He took us on a time travelling retrospective of his work from 2005 through to the present, including “About David”, “Candlelight”, “Heartburn” and “The Scene”. His stand-out piece was “Jessica”, a wonderful timeline poem in its own right which closes with advice to a little boy which sums up “Polarbear the Poet” perfectly: “
The spaces between words deserve to shine…. speak what you know, breathe deep as you flow…..Make sure that when you are gripping the mike you make sure that you write for right now.” All of which are pretty much the Polarbear manifesto. A captivating performance, appreciatively received.
Co-headliner was Hollie McNish from Cambridge who instantly won the hearts and admiration of the audience – and then, after a magnificent performance, left us all yearning for more. Hollie is an exceptionally interesting young performer.
She graduated in French and German, more recently specialising with an MSc in Agricultural and Political Economics. Since then, she’s been performing around the UK and Europe and running educational poetry days and workshops on topics from racism, homophobia and drug politics to cookery, riversides and bumblebees! She also works as poet in residence and event organisor with Shape East, an educational charity focused on sustainable and ecological urban planning and youth inclusion in decision-making.
Her status as a cross-over artist is obvious. Her “street” credentials are stocked with appearances at Glastonbury, The Big Chill and a third place finish in the World Slam Championships in Paris 2009. Yet a mainstream position has also been established with appearances on BBC Radio, and on “Woman’s Hour,” the latter of which was eulogised about on the ubiquitous “Mumsnet”. And it was the poem which she performed for “Woman’s Hour”, “Wow” which she opened up with. Powerful, searching but simple, she explores as a new mum herself, society’s expectations of the female form juxtaposing it with the unknowing innocence of a small child’s perception of her own body.
“Language Learning” is a fantastic bilingual poem of the language of love in English and French, the latter of which was delivered fluently and effortlessly, testament I suspect, to the time that she spent in Guadeloupe.
A subsequent piece about the prejudices which The Daily Mail panders to highlighted the political awareness which she prides herself on, whilst the hilarious, “Willies are More Dangerous than Guns”, combined that political edge, with rib tickling warm humour, which not only closed her set, but left us cheering for more.
Hollie performed with conviction and a fragile beauty. Her strength is in combining a strong sense of narrative, easy rhyme and an uncompromising message. A rising star if ever there was one.
The first half of the evening was closed by the last of the star guests, German duo Lars Ruppel and Sebastian 23. They performed separately, and as a duo, in unison, and reading parts, in English and in German, and they were terrific. Funny, and quick-witted, they had us reciting poetry in German, laughing at their jokes, as well as admiring their conventional pieces performed in English, Both have enjoyed international Slam success across Europe, whilst Lars is committed to a project which uses poetry to help those suffering from dementia.
“Statistics” was their most successful piece, demonstrating an uncanny ability to fuse German and English humour, whilst their closing sex poem, performed in German (the language of love!) “Viva la Penetration” was an uproariously fitting end to both the first half of the evening, and a very enjoyable set.
Preceding the headliners we had a series of open-micers, doing a couple of poems each. But even these offered performances of a very high standard. Spoz, starting the evening, performed “Witness the Shitness” to a hip hop backing track complete with rousing audience participation.
Jo Bell revealed that she is either very well read, or has had an extraordinary range of lovers, in the hilarious,” Coming”. From Leicester, Phoenix read the chilling and serious “Don’t Shoot the Messenger” and “Hold Me”, with the Red Poet form Birmingham offering lighter fare with “Have you been haunted by love?”. Just before the break, American Anne Rose MacArthur recited an unusually original piece “Have You Ever Been Kissed” a lengthy, but hugely rewarding poem interweaving the power of a Tennessee deluge with the power of an urgent kiss.
Warming up for the headliners after the break, Al Hutchings paid tribute to the Ramones, and Bossman the Orator spoke of “Astro Love”. Ray Antrobus, another of headline quality, ripped through a tremendous trilogy and must surely return in his own right (Who can resist “Pornography is Good for Me But Bad for Other People”?).Fergus McGonigal preceded Hollie McNish with the acerbic “Just Call Me Dave” and the wonderful “Lawnmowers,” a tale of a putsch by lawnmowers to rule the world – which goes rather well!
The presence of audience and performers from across the country (and world) is confirmation that there really is “Something Happening” at “Hit the Ode. The obvious question is how on earth you beat that for the next event. Bohdan has addressed that with a bill comprising Luke Kennard, Adam Kammerling, Laura Wihlborg and Oskar Hanska the latter two from Sweden on Thursday 26th May. Be there. 28-04-11