Review by Eddie Hibbert Hingston & Todd Speakman
26/10/13 The Peckham Liberal Hall, London
Asked to review Kansas Smitty’s Speakeasy last Saturday, we obediently headed out to darkest Peckham on a cold-ish Autumn evening. Arriving at undoubtedly the right venue (the hand-designed flyers really helped) we discovered The Peckham Liberal Club. Finding nobody at the door we ventured inside and found a typical local members club, the members congregated in two bars drinking their subsidised pints, and no Kansas Smitty. We ventured through the veneered halls, unchanged since at least 1970 and bearing olfactory witness to decades of legal indoor smoking and came upon the main function room where we walked into a heady, heaving, high-octane… game of Bingo. As we began to look for a basement or alternative space in which we might find Kansas Smitty we came across a young man in skinny shorts and facial hair, clutching an ipad. This young man told us we were very early, so off we went for a bite to eat.
When we returned Stav B was behind one of the bars, serving her famous Juleps out of branded tin cans; after a couple each we could agree they were a force to be reckoned with! To a steady soundtrack of ‘Knock on my door: 54!‘ we were questioned on the Juleps by a fellow with an inspiring beer belly. He did try one, but decided to stick to his lager, telling us what a fine vintage 2013 was. We also felt obliged to try the Tamales (what kind of reviewers could we call ourselves if we didn’t, eh?) which were hot and substantial and so delicious (although it should be noted that they are much easier to eat once the corn husk has been removed!)
By this point the ticket-holders were arriving thick and fast and as we began to assemble in the main hall we were greeted with bemusement (and scattered abuse) from the regular members; whose Bingo game was winding down by this point. It has to be said that the sound-check wasn’t as popular as the Bingo had been, and provoked some harsh words at high volume from those sat behind us; they were tough critics! Into this slightly unconventional atmosphere the band finally emerged and began to play; the two factions of the audience blessed by the benevolent, wry smiles of the immaculately Bryl-Creemed double bass player.
The band’s energy didn’t take long to rub off on the audience (both members and newcomers) and Kansas Smitty’s Band the new theme tune had even the most sceptical foot tapping. Giacomo introduced the musicians, each of whom moved and smiled with delighted appreciation at one another’s playing. In place of the all-too-common “collection of musos playing the same song in the same place at the same time but not necessarily together” was a collection of musicians who whooped, cheered and clapped their way joyously through one another’s playing. We couldn’t stop pointing out that “They listen to each other!” This respectful and responsive attitude to one’s bandmates is severely lacking in much of the live jazz we’ve seen and was remarked upon by our neighbours as well as ourselves. Giacomo led magnificently, and the rhythm section kept the band firmly on track. Between the first and second sets the floor began to fill; ticket holders tentatively joining two members of advanced years who had broken the ice with some energetic moves.
During the second set the grinning pianist, trench-coat still firmly secured, abandoned the stage to dance with the tamale girl before taking the mic to sing ‘The Way You Look Tonight.’ The decision to involve the members (rather than hiring the space for ticket holders only) lent an authenticity to the atmosphere; despite the initial reluctance to integrate, both groups ended up trashing the divisions between them and having fun. It was quite profound to be a part of a little jazz-fest channelling the cross-cultural joy which so defined the speakeasy scene during the Prohibition era.
The flyer was right; this was not another vintage dress-up night. There were no costumes, no set design, no smoke and mirrors but the lack of kitsch made the night. The haphazard, honest and slightly awkward approach worked to two very important ends; the atmosphere was as authentic as it could possibly have been (considering we’re in 21st century London) and there were no distractions from the glorious music itself. We will certainly be returning, and would highly recommend this night for anyone interested in dancing in your jeans to good jazz and heck, maybe come early for a round or two of Bingo.