Songbook Sessions @ The Zanzibar
The Myspace page for the Songbook Sessions at the Zanzibar promises a “candle-lit, relaxed, sit down experience” featuring “high quality, non electric, acoustic esque” music. And I’ll tell you right from the off, at no point in the evening are all of those criteria satisfied. This isn’t always a bad thing, and it’s not to say that there aren’t a few good bands playing, but not a single one of them is simultaneously non-electric, relaxed and high quality. There aren’t even any sodding candles.
The first act on, for instance, is a lone singer-songwriter who doesn’t tell us his name, which is also (perhaps wisely) absent from the minimal promotional material. His first song is an apprehensive struggle with his guitar, paired up with almost insultingly clichéd lyrics. We’re talking “Baby, when you’re loving me, I’m loving you” kind of stuff here. His other songs don’t fare any better, and I start to wonder why he thought this material was strong enough to bother playing in front of paying customers. This riddle is answered rather succinctly when he launches into a cover of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’. Ah, so this is what he thinks great song-writing looks like. His last song shows some promise, guitar-wise, but with his panicky, unsure playing style it soon goes south, and you get the feeling that he’s over-reaching. Perhaps it’s better that his name is nowhere to be found. I don’t enjoy giving bad reviews, but I really can’t find anything to recommend.
Unplugged, a young duo from Southport, are better. They play mostly bluesy rock ‘n’ roll covers, with a couple of radio hits thrown in – Ever Fallen in Love and the like. There’s a thrown-together vibe about them, almost as though they’re here by accident, or just because they’ve got nothing else to do. It’s amateurish, but really quite nice, and I find myself genuinely rooting for them. Maybe not ones to watch just yet, but I’ve got a feeling they might find themselves doing something pretty special somewhere down the road.
Dan Elson and The Rhythm Pixies mark the exact point at which the evening takes its turn into the high quality experience promised to us. It also marks the exact point it moves away from the non-electric, acoustic-esque, sit-down experience. They play a lively, eclectic mix of funk, ska, rock and pop, but the main thing about them is their sense of humour and fun. There are songs about stalker girls, Alan Partridge, and Dan’s inability to grow a proper beard, interspersed with ‘beat poetry’ mini-sketches. Their blend of comedy and pop tunes has shades of the Barenaked Ladies but less serious. Or Flight of the Conchords, but more serious. Either way. They finish their set with a best-of-three thumb war between two audience members for a gold (painted) medal (cardboard circle) set to closer Olympic Year.
Endeci are pretty good, I guess. They play a mixture of everything that might fall under the category of ‘alternative’. Their songs are cleverly written and they play them well, bassist James’ sometimes off-putting falsetto aside. But I really don’t know what else to tell you. I honestly want to like them, but the truth is that there’s not an awful lot of direction or urgency to them. They swap instruments and vocal duties, hop from alt. rock to early emo and back, even hitting some grungy fuzz in their closing number. But their set falls into the classic trap of alternative rock; it meanders, it drags its feet. It’s indecisive and ultimately just a bit shiftless. I think maybe they were aiming for shoegaze, and in the end just settled to stay in bed all day, staring moodily at the sock draw. Quite good, but not great.
Rhyming With Orange returns the night’s original acoustic flavour. A jazzy, folksy five-piece from Southport (and old enough that I do give serious consideration to the thought that they might be Unplugged’s parents), they’re a great band to reset the crowd’s mood to one of warm relaxation, and their inclusion halfway through the set is a good choice to cleanse the palate. But despite them all being capable musicians, there is still something of a disconnect. One singer has the lyrics on a music stand in front of her, the frontman has a line in painfully rehearsed stage-banter, and there’s a grim feeling that at any moment somebody might whip out a tray of vol au vents and start showing us photos of their last holiday to the Maldives. The music is a pleasant enough way to pass half an hour, but afterwards your brain just feels like it’s been switched off for a few minutes and allowed to cool down. Nice and relaxing, but forgettable.
Sue Whitebrook and the Amateur Hour are as scouse as it gets, and they want you to know it. Hard. Bashing the drums, thrashing their acoustic guitars and singing songs about cheap Primark coats, new shoes and the like, they come across like an intensely Liverpudlian version Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Three. Simple, pounding songs delivered with yelled backing vocals and a healthy dollop of scouse yumour.
The 10B’s are celebrating their first birthday tonight. Or would be, except that bassist Dan has managed to blow out the amp. This winds up taking a frankly tedious amount of time to sort out, although the rest of the band manage to improvise a modestly entertaining sing-along song for the interlude. When they do get going, they’re fun, loud, entertaining… I’m going to have to stop short of saying impressive. In many ways, they’re better than impressive, but it feels like they were going for impressive and missed by a mile. Their songs strike a balance between catchy and edgy, and the crowd seem really into it. But it never feels as intense as they seem to want it to. And when they try too hard to force a feeling of power and it falls flat, it just makes you embarrassed for them. If they’d just pull back a bit and take note of their limitations as a band, they could be something really good.
(Image: The 10Bs by Kerry Marie)
The D-Tales, meanwhile, come out rather better at not acknowledging limits. I can’t say I’ve ever considered a bouzouki in a pop band before, but shit, they pull it off. They’ve got a pile of satisfying pop songs with a nice, twisted jazz feel – honky-tonk keyboards, bright, sparky guitars and splashy cymbals – but never sound dated. They’re lively, but not theatrical. Poppy, but not irritating. Upbeat, but not simple-minded. Their complex vocal melodies flit over and under a twee, offbeat, sunshine-y backdrop that calls up everything from later-Kinks to The La’s. With a new self-titled EP out, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to see them over the next few months. Do yourself a favour and take it.
Words: Michael O’Farrell
Original ManGone Review