Birds, booze and ballads. An unplugged evening in London’s best kept secret (shhhhh, don’t tell anyone).
Not only had I never been to Brockley before, I had never even heard of it until this weekend. Situated south of the Thames, it is nestled between Peckham and Lewisham. On exiting the train, my first impressions were that it was a busy little spot, but not chaotic, like many other parts of London. It also looked a fairly working class area but some of the properties we spotted, whilst not extravagant, had clearly had a lot of money spent on them. There were signs of gentrification, but I got the impression that it had yet to be over run by hipsters.
Our first port of call was a pub that is part of a chain famous for selling its beer cheaply. I haven’t set foot in once since the owner famously sacked all his workers at the beginning of lockdown, but a quick google search indicated it was the only ‘pub’ in the vicinity. The beer was indeed cheap. A pint of cider and a double gin and tonic was the same price as just a pint in most London boozers. That was about all the pub had going for it though.
We sat outside in the sun and watched the world go by. The ratio of hipsters to average looking Joe/Josephines tied in with our initial crude summary of the town. A homely looking lady sat near us and seemed chatty and friendly at first. Then she fell off her chair. As friendly as a newt apparently.
After a few cheap, but otherwise unremarkable dinks, we headed off in search of tonight’s destination, ‘Water into beer’. It wasn’t immediately clear what we were looking for. Its website says it is a homebrew shop, Cosmo had said it was an off-licence. Yet we were going to a gig there.
We asked two locals the way. “Porsche knows the way,” the young chap declared. And indeed she did.
We headed back over the railway line and soon spotted Water into Beer, the book shop. I was immediately advised by Megan, “Don’t even think about it, you have too many books already”. Kids eh!
Upon entering, we were greeted with the sight of an amazing array fridges full of cans and bottles. There was Peanut Butter & Chocolate Imperial Milk Stout rocking in at 12.0% (surely that’s wine territory?). A strong New England IPA filled with bright peach, mango, and grapefruit flavours from YCHs Cryo Pop hop blend – almost alcohol free at a mere 7.3% – and ‘Brockley We Are Lewisham’ – what I presume is a local brew.
There were lagers, beers, stouts and meads. But like trained truffle hounds, we spotted a selection of ciders and started sampling them before settling on our favorites (mine was the Butford Organics Cinnabar – 6.8%). It is a little more expensive than the pub down the road, but every one of the drinks on sale here is hand picked and memorable.
After wandering around like an alcoholic child in a wine-gum shop for a while, Cosmo arrived with his banjo. Hugs, introductions and insults were the order of the day. It’s been a while since our paths have crossed, what with lockdown and stuff. It’s also been a while since he had a haircut, the scruffy git.
Eventually it was time for the entertainment to start so we took our seats. With it being a brewing shop / book shop -/off licence thing, There’s only room for a dozen or so people, but it was an incredibly friendly vibe and it just felt incredibly – well – NICE! (I have had stick for using that word, but it really was nice, and I mean that in the most positive of ways).
The small crowd means it is possible to play literally unplugged, just guitar and voice with no amplification.
First up was Bitty Booker. Bity is an Italian/Australian psych-folk singer songwriter and illustrator based in London. She is gently spoken is probably the least punk rock artist I have ever seen. But despite her delicate demeanor, she is also quietly confident and immediately has the audience in the palm of her hands.
She starts off singing about a sparrow, then London parakeets and we quickly see a theme developing. Mice, fireflies and walking in the bush are also inspiration for her melodies. Now whilst many artists put the lyrics of their songs on album covers, Bitty is the first person that I have come across that turns individual songs into illustrated books. She passes them around between songs in case anyone wants to buy one. It has to be said, they are things of beauty. (That’s me Granddaughter’s first Christmas Present sorted.)
Everyone sits quietly and absorbs every mesmerising moment. Till she eventually finishes off with her version of Little Boxes by Pete Seeger.
After a short break we get Martin Howard, the brains behind the event. He has been putting on shows in the shop for half a dozen years now. He also has songs that feature parrots. And lots of other birds. And fictional pubs and ecology and going on holiday to inappropriate places places. He nicely bridges the gap between the gentleness of Bitty and the rebelliousness of Cosmo yet to come.
More cider is consumed and soon Cosmo is ready to entertain us. I have been watching him perform for over twenty years and am intimately acquainted with his repertoire. I think of him as a close mate (mainly because he is) and sometimes take him for granted. It is easy to forget that people outside of our Cardiff circle are familiar with his back catalogue. But everyone here seems to be familiar with his work and sing along in the right places.
A Cosmo performance is the ideal blend of protest songs, history lessons and humor. Sometimes self depreciating, sometimes thought provoking, always entertaining. Anti fascism, women’s liberation and pub chain owners that sacked their workers lockdown are among the subjects he covers tonight. He doesn’t have any songs about birds, but to tenuoisly keep the theme going he dusts off an old cover version he had retired, ‘Oi Mush’, because it contains the line, ‘There I was in Strangways, doing a stretch of bird‘.
If you want to support Cosmo, get exclusive downloads or even have him come around your house and teach your new dog old tricks, sign up to his new subscription service. It’s like Netflix with its head kicked in.
Eventually the evening draws to an end. It is, after all, a book shop, not a bloody night club. I’m not sure if it was the cider or company, but I felt a warm glow, it had been a thoroughly pleasant evening – and I mean that in the nicest possible way. I’ve never said that about a night in Wetherspoons!