Mark McCambridge continues to impress with rich tunes and a hard-earned earthy croon
It's Friday night, it's bring-your-own and we're in a… yoga studio? Whatever you do, never accuse the Arborist lads of lacking imagination. Stifling July heat notwithstanding, Flow Yoga studios works well as a small-scale music venue.
Hidden away on the second floor of a building on Hill Street in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, there's enough room for a few dozen people, the acoustics are surprisingly good – given that the only soft surfaces in the room are human bodies – and it's just round the corner from some of the best pubs in the city. So pre- and post-gig drinking is practically obligatory.
We're gathered here to celebrate the imminent launch of a new single from Arborist, the band led by Ballymena-born singer-songwriter Mark McCambridge. But first a face and voice that is probably more familiar to regulars at Belfast gig venues over the last 10 years: erstwhile LaFaro frontman Jonny Black.
For several years, Black has had a sideline as a performer of acoustic guitar covers under the stage name of Skip Moses, but with LaFaro (for those who don't know, a four-piece noise-punk battering ram) apparently on hiatus, he is now using his own name.
LaFaro fans know Black for his rasping, snarling vocals and bludgeoning riffs, and his set here shows a different, but recognisable set of talents. His guitar prowess has never been in doubt – in LaFaro he knocks out complex solos like he isn't even trying – and on an acoustic guitar, his fingerpicked playing is delicate and rhythmic.
His voice, while never what you might call pretty, is tuneful enough, and sympathetic to the introspective choice of songs. It's not clear how many are covers and how many are Black's own compositions, but he does introduce songs by Jim O'Rourke and Richard Thompson, which may give you an idea of the leftfield, folky seam that he mines.
It would be interesting to hear a full set of his own songs written with an acoustic guitar in mind, because the set-up rather suits him.
Arborist come from a similar songwriting tradition, and McCambridge often performs solo (such as when he has supported Low and most recently Cat Power), but tonight they are in full band mode, with the relatively recent addition of Jonny Ashe – who you may remember from his Tracer AMC days – on lead guitar.
McCambridge is by no means a new songwriter, having honed his craft over more than a decade – most of it spent outside Northern Ireland – but his emergence over the last 18 months has been more than welcome. We are used to watching fresh-faced new talents mature over time, but in Arborist we have an artist that arrives fully formed and, potentially, the real deal.
The touchstones mainly lie across the Atlantic – when I interviewed McCambridge last year he namechecked Jason Molina, Leonard Cohen and Sam Cooke – and there is a richness and a poise to both songwriting and performance that really impresses.
The single 'Border Blood' (released July 28) is a twanging, countryish lament with some lovely piano work from Richard Hill and a memorable, soaring chorus; 'Twisted Love', dedicated to McCambridge's daughter, sways gently but purposefully; and although 'Ten Acres' never really catches fire, old favourites 'Incalculable Things' and 'Hundreds Of Ways' are completely convincing: rich and melodic with a dark heart.
The band is measured, supporting the songs without drawing attention away from them, and Ashe's effects-laden guitar work adds an extra dimension. But most impressive of all is McCambridge's voice – an earthy croon that sounds like it has been hard-earned. That voice, and the intoxicating mood conjured by all five musicians, could carry Arborist a long way.
Visit the Flow Yoga Studios website for information on upcoming events.