LIVE REVIEW: Cathode, Natalie Stern, SL Walkinshaw, Faye MacCalman, Madeleine Smyth @ The Cumberland Arms (14.05.22) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Cathode

One of the city’s finest pubs, live venues and early summer haunts, The Cumberland Arms is one Newcastle institution whose ownership is worth celebrating.

Marking 20 years under the stewardship of Jo Hodson, this sun-soaked day of festivities featured excellent beer, choice DJs and hearty Cuban street food, before culminating indoors with this superb evening of live music. Personally curated by Jo, it’s a line-up loaded with local favourites who’ve graced the Cumberland stage countless times – though given the acts who’ve cut their teeth here, it feels especially apt to begin with an outlier and relative newcomer. This is my first time seeing Madeleine Smyth – whose own establishment on the circuit has been delayed by unfortunate timing and a certain all-consuming global catastrophe. No matter, this multidisciplined artist’s musical wing proves a vibrant delight; a shimmering dreamscape which submerges live viola and vocals in a pool of plush synths and scampering electronic beats. It’s a palette rich with intrigue and enveloping possibilities, an enticing introduction that’s rocketed her second EP, Brigid (due May 27th) near the top of my ‘to listen’ list.

Next up is absurdly talented jazz polymath Faye MacCalman – familiar to most as leader of the brilliant garage-jazz trio Archipelago, but whose solo work is increasingly taking on a life of its own. For me at least, this is by some distance her most captivating performance to date – thanks in no small part to the recently debuted Invisible, Real, a suite she composed over the course of two years for an installation at Cheltenham Jazz Festival. We’re only treated to snippets, of course, but what we do hear is revelatory. A succession of lush, intricately layered sonic tapestries, these pieces are fertile smorgasbords; experiments in reed and electronic texture which bubble with life, imagination and wonder, proving only too easy to become wrapped up within. Superlative stuff.

With Nathalie Stern’s brooding drone-folk waiting in the wings, the evening was always poised to take a darker turn. Unexpectedly, though, it’s SL Walkinshaw who signals the tonal shift, a confounding curveball for those familiar with his typically tranquil ambient offerings. While solo sets to date have largely reconfigured the serene elements coalesced in last year’s Tape/String album, tonight finds Walkinshaw mining a far older source in one of his former bands – the much missed Nately’s Whore’s Kid Sister. Appropriately enough, the number he’s exhumed is Man Outside Cumberland Arms, Byker, 11/07/11; a lengthy, rambling diatribe now platformed via spare, spectral electronics – though evidently without foreseeing the presence of children! It’s far less lovely than his usual fare, but no less compelling for it. Nathalie Stern meanwhile is at her absolute best – a prospect fit to bewitch any audience into a pin-drop silence. Unwaveringly tense and yet strangely soothing, her sonorous melange of synth and vocal loops creates the kind of atmosphere you could cut with a knife. The pace is glacial, yet each and every aspect of this performance is completely riveting – whether she’s supplying soaring choral numbers, adapting Icelandic hymns into her native Swedish or reducing her range to a faint, impeccably observed whisper.

At this point it feels like all this birthday bash lacks is something we can dance to… enter laptop luminary Steve Jeffries under his long-dormant solo alias, Cathode! Resurrected for tonight only following a drunken conversation at the Cumberland’s sister venue The Old Coal Yard, the Warm Digits man casts a nostalgic eye back to the glitchy electronic music he made in the mid ‘00s – a time in which he first moved to Newcastle and discovered his spiritual home on this very stage. “I feel like I should be frowning more, but I can’t contain my excitement!” he exclaims. With its spare presentation and beautifully pruned, steadily simmering stream of analog clicks, the early stages are indeed an exploration of the more serious, experimental sounds synonymous with the still-insufferable tag of IDM. Gradually, though, Jeffries’ more rhythmic impulses seize the initiative, and with angular projections also at play it’s not long before his melodious sensibilities and expert dynamism has the room in raptures. It’s an ecstatic end to a wonderful event. Here’s to many more years!

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