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Sandinista's new blues-themed bar needs more soul, says Felicity Clarke

Published on January 14th 2010.


Since their first place shares its name with a Clash album and Nicaraguan political party, it's no real surprise that the name of the Sandinista folks' second venture is another loaded musical reference. Smokestack is so-called because of the 1956 Howlin' Wolf blues tune 'Smokestack Lightning'. This cornerstone of the genre has been described as 'a distillation of the very essence of the blues', something these style bar renegades are aiming to bring to Leeds with this hideaway upstairs joint on Lower Briggate.

No one's going to fall for the 'Deep South nostalgia' stuff, but if they can stick to the high quality drinks and show a sustained genuine commitment to the music, then they ought to keep us coming back for a bourbon and a boogie.

A blink-and-you'll-miss-it street entrance leads up to a first floor 'speakeasy lounge', adopting, as they are, the terminology to match their outlook. Classic jazz concert posters line the stairway and on entering you're struck by the large frames of vinyl LPs showing off a whole spectrum of blues, jazz, and soul legends. Impressive. We're in for an education it would seem. But what about a drink first to ease us in.

Smokestack have a back bar that would have stirred the flappers of the Prohibition era speakeasies into a frenzied liquor lust. They make good use of it on the extensive cocktail menu categorised, somewhat confusingly, by US cities. The menu doesn't mean anything anyway when there's a cocktail artist behind the bar ready to flex a creative muscle.

After much flaring activity, we were presented with drinks. The traditional 1930s New Orleans amaretto sours (£5.50) had a tart sweetness with a sour edge making for a tangy taste, but the traditional egg white texture was something to overcome.

The other was a tropical rum punch (£6). Bacardi and um bongo it was not. The Most Elaborate Rum Punch Ever was a hard-hitting fruit sensation featuring fresh pineapple and passion fruit, shaken with about a third of the contents of the back bar, finished off with a passionfruit cup filled with 73 per cent overproof rum and set alight. Now that's flair for you.

As well as the accomplished drinks-making, the music is something Smokestack want to be taken seriously for. Upstairs is 'The Roost', a sloping roofed attic room that plays host to soul, funk and jazz live acts (Mark Ronson's band played not long ago) as well as a rota of funk and soul DJs. Dramatic photography of the great jazz and blues musicians of the 1950s is on the deep red walls while classic high stools and leather sofas line the room. It's a warm, stylised throwback to a time when the beats shuffled rather than stomped.

But what of the beats? Sadly, The Roost wasn't open on our mid-week visit so we supped up in the lounge bar where the music took in soul, a touch of blues, mostly funk and a suspicious smattering of R'n'B. Not an education as such but it makes for a laid-back vibe. The real fun to be had is when The Roost is open and there's a band up there doing it live.

I must say though, it does all feel a lot more polished than rootsy. In the blurb Smokestack is described as a 'place to let time slip away whilst the waves of Deep South nostalgia wash over you'. This is obviously indulgent marketing guff but, like the venue, it's got a gloss about it that could just do with scruffing up a bit. There are plenty of personality vacuums out there that rely on the slick, brown leather, bare bricks, soul-funk soundtrack combo. Smokestack has all these ingredients but it's a more promising execution of the format.

And anyway, this is the Sandinista crew we're talking about. They have a reputation for a seemingly effortless balance of style and substance to uphold. No one's going to fall for the 'Deep South nostalgia' stuff, but if they can stick to the high quality drinks and show a sustained genuine commitment to the music, then they ought to keep us coming back for a bourbon and a boogie. We'll soon make it a little rougher around edges.

Rating: 12.5/20
Breakdown: 4/5 Drink
3/5 Service
2.5/5 Decor
3/5 Atmosphere
Address: Smokestack
159a Lower Briggate
0113 2452222

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