The Zenith Bar, Islington
20 December 2012
(from guest reviewer Rob Zanders)
I feel that alongside the reviews of esteemed artistes that appear in Eden On The Line, there has to be space for the basic, the ordinary, and the foot soldiers of music. This took me down to Islington for a Christmas party gig, invited along by an old mate, Charlie.
It has to be said, that hanging around Islington is not one of my normal pastimes. Just off the now designer high street, down a gentrified terrace, next to a new ‘academy’ is The Zenith. My first reaction was I had come on the wrong day; the place looked dead. Eventually I pushed against a door and fell into a place that, if it had been decorated in the last thirty years, they had just painted over whatever was there before. I expected to find Regan and Carter drooped over the bar. The gents were out of order with each and everybody left to the one ‘trap’ in the women’s. And for those in search of ‘Real Ale’ the Zenith is not for you for the dispensers resembled an illuminated Lego model of Time Square.
The great thing about pubs like this is the pragmatic, no nonsense service. An unsmiling bloke behind the bar will greet you with, “Yeah mate, what can I get you?” He’ll give you a full pint, spill a bit, then follow up with “That’s £3.50, mate.” Job done. Not at the Zenith, not this night. I found a gap at the bar, where two West African lads were serving on. They had not quite got the idea. To my left a loud woman was in dispute with one of the lads.
“What have you done, man? I didn’t ask for this, it’s undrinkable. What have you put in my whiskey?” She was the sort of women who will always get what she wants because her determination to make a point is greater than the other person’s desire to take on the dispute, there are just too many short hours left in life. She did have a point, however. The poor bloke showed her a bottle. “Good gracious man, that’s tonic water. You don’t put tonic water in scotch. I asked for soda water.” She had grown more voluble by the syllable. Shove a jack plug up her bottom and she was a walking P.A. system for the band. What she had not worked out was the bar tender did not understand, and she was using that curious English technique of shouting louder to make the foreigner understand. Somehow he got the idea and poured her another dot of scotch into a half pint glass. Before adding anything she demanded to see what fizzy stuff he would add. As luck would have it, he showed her a bottle of Perrier water which both pacified and delighted her in equal measures. Not so the mixture, he added a splash and she demanded more until the whole glass was brimming with mineral water. Is this how people take their scotch in Islington, I thought? Should I ask for a cognac drowned in Highland Spring?
While this was going on, to my right, Dominic, who appeared far more placatory, was buying a round. He was a sociable chap and after carefully ordering, by that I mean speaking slowly to his barman, enunciating each syllable, he would turn and continue his conversation with his friends. The chat would continue as the barman stood silently with the drink ready. I decided to nudge Dominic to hasten the process. Four nudges and 3 packets of nuts later: “That is it, thank you. How much do I own you?” To which the two barmen then carefully attempted to work out the cost on a solar powered calculator, while wondering why it was not working.
By the time they were ready to serve me the band were up on stage. I ordered a half of Stella for my daughter - you’d never catch me drinking that stuff and, “… a pint of Guinness, please.”
“Then I’ll have the London Pride.”
“No London Pride.”
“What about the John Smith’s?”
“John Smith’s off”.
I’m now left with a choice of three European, one Indian and one Australian lager, all manufactured along the M1 corridor between Northampton and Luton. He read the look of exasperated disappointment in my sinking eyes and helpfully suggested, “You have more Stella?” I relented.
What about the music, then? This being the second decade of the twenty first century it is best to say what the Jazz Slayers were not. For starters, they were not a tribute act, so that immediately put them in the top 40 per cent of acts around. Nor did they perform ‘note for note’ copies. So they are now in the top fifth. They are not an act that disbanded out of safety when punk reared up and have now reformed with the lead singer and the bass player and a couple of ex-punks they met at a protest against the shutting down of the local library. If we take out the headliners demanding a hundred pounds for a ticket at the O2, we get down to the select group of people who are out enjoying themselves and providing no cost enjoyment to others. Jazz sums it up their music in one word and although their YouTube clips do suggest they actually slay the stuff, on this day they were more ready than rough.
Lest he might get too enthusiastic, tucked in at the back on the left side of the small ‘stage’, penned in by a combi amp, stood the guitarist. He was allowed to play with his foot pedal but otherwise kept in good order by a rhythm section that adhered to the’ better heard than seen’ rule. Front stage was two sax players, one who lit up the night with occasional flute. Charlie enthusiastically blew into something that looked like it came from a hospital museum and had been last used for a colo-rectal cleansing - I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a bass clarinet. Fronting the band was Clive who may well have been a less flamboyant little brother of George Melly. He could knock out a good song and put in some sound trombone, but not at the same time. All the band came dressed to shift kit and have beer thrown at them, so a touch of glamour was added by the two ‘girls’ who occasionally added backing vocals for Clive.
They started with a warmer up that the Crusaders might have knocked out in the late seventies, then turned a little more be-boppy. They would happily take a good old pop tune and put their own slant on it. I’m not sure how many of the audience singing along to ‘Working in a Coal Mine’ could empathise but maybe a few of them had thumped the tubs of Islington back in the mid-eighties, in support of striking miners, even though that beastly Arthur Scargill never deserved a ‘home’ in London.
After a short lager break, they took the stage again and funked it up a bit. The crowd had grown and evolved from toe tapping to syncopated wobbling when the funk burst seamlessly into a jazz version of ‘We Three Kings’. They were also joined for a medley by a thirteen and half year old trumpeter from Crouch End, called Hugo. Watch out for him. Or maybe in fifty years’ time, he will reflect ruefully from his solicitor's practice, that he has another twenty two years before retirement and he could and should have cut it as a jazz trumpet player.
I have now to admit that due to the vagaries of the transport system in this leading global city, we left at ten fifteen to get back to London Bridge Station. I went to pick up my jacket, a worn and battered thing that no low life in any pub would want to nick. It wasn’t there! In its place was a much nicer thing from John Lewis with a post it note stuck to the sleeve, ‘Have my jacket - Merry Christmas.’ As I fell out of the door, Clive announced Hugo was also leaving and as we wandered up Packington Street and the child prodigy got into his dad’s Saab, the whole pub was roaring out, “HUGO, HUGO, HUGO….”
I think I was missing the best part of the night, and I certainly missed the number where ‘Little Donkey’ morphs into Hendrix’s ‘Crosstown Traffic’. I leave that for the next time.
Would I revisit the Zenith for a beer? No.
Would I go again to see another act? If I lived closer
Would I go again to see the jazz Slayers? No problem.
Would I check out where else they play and see them again? Dead right, I would. And I’d stay to the end.
I have done this review for all the folk out there who do not want to book a gig twelve months in advance through a third party agency where you have to pay £100 to sit with a pair of binoculars just to see the big screen. It is dedicated to those people who just like to turn up and take a chance. Those who want a good night out at no more than the cost of public transport and a few beers. And also for the good, honest performers who are willing to put on a show just because they enjoy it.