Acoustic Club at the Zanzibar

Featuring Stan Ambrose, Helen Panayiutou, Sparklewood & 21, and Tom Doughty
The Zanzibar, Seel Street
21st May 2006

Reviewed by Hana Leaper

Although beginning prohibitively early to be encompassed in its entirety by my established Sunday routine (my delicate state-of-near-comatose usually requires a time honoured ritual which strictly adhering roast dinner at five), this Sunday evening acoustic session provided the perfect remedy for my end-of-weekend blues. Despite the Zanzibar’s general aura of dinge, the promoters managed to create a chilled out environment through the simple devices of a few candles and well laid out seating. The fact that the organisation of the evening isn’t regimental adds to the ‘its-all-good’ laid-back vibe of the evening, and allows for some unexpected treats in the form of bands who aren’t strictly supposed to be on the bill, but who have (with a cheeky grin) ceded their way on to the stage. There are far too many in the assortment of performers to mention all so a few selected highlights shall have to suffice.

Richard Moss - a solo guitarist - serenades us with some jaunty traditional jigs and ye Olde English Ballads, which unbeknownst to the reverend who transcribed them for posterity are nothing short of filthy. Singer-songwriter Helen Panayiutou plays her own pretty yet wry love songs, which she manages to make both demure and sexually explicit. However, I note a few panic-stricken looking men who are obviously taking her slightly worrying intimacy issues and nervous banter as fitted-as-standard female neurosis. Their minds are soon put at ease when harpist Stan Ambrose takes to the stage in dark glasses, denouncing any claims to pretentiousness by explaining how he’d fallen the previous day and awoken looking like one of the Finnish Eurovision winners. His look might be similar, but the music couldn’t be much more different, giving an off-the-cuff harp rendition of ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’ (the same ballad performed earlier on guitar by Moss), and generally conjuring mental pictures of cherubs with wings and pre-Raphaelite goddesses. Sparklewood & 21 are a more conventional four-piece band - although there is a ukulele brandishing fella where one might expect the second guitarist to be. Frequently utilising strong quiet/loud dynamics, their gentle harmonies rise, culminating in a melodious clamour of maniacal tremolando ukulele and soaring vocals. The last mention goes to Tom Doughty, a slide guitarist of exceptional talent who begins with the 1920s era blues of Blind Willy Johnson, played on his 1930s instrument with great panache, and proceeds to render his own abstract arrangement of a Snooks Eaglin classic, which he claims is minimalist but which makes the eyes of every other guitarist in the room bulge.

Including a harpist is…well, not the most obvious of choices, but it reflects the diversity of the evening; the audience and performers are not obviously linked by age or dress. This is not a boxed-off ‘scene’ event run by a cynical promoter to perpetuate a formulaic money-spinning brand of cool, rather it’s a gathering of talented performers and people who don’t give a damn if appreciating music never likely to feature in league tables of commercial success is considered a little beardy. Which in itself, along with the music, is an incredibly refreshing, enjoyable experience.

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