REVIEW: Arab Strap, The Cluny, Newcastle

Arab Strap played their only warm-up gig at The Cluny.
Arab Strap played their only warm-up gig at The Cluny.
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Arab Strap nuts from far and wide flocked to Newcastle last night as the Scots chose The Cluny to stage for their first gig in a decade.

Formed in the lowland town of Falkirk, Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton's cult outfit enjoyed a marvellous 10-year run round the turn of the millennium, eventually parting on amicable terms back in 2006.

Now, though, the duo are embarking on a short reunion to mark their 20th anniversary, with dates in London and Manchester topped off by two huge weekend shows at Glasgow's Barrowland Ballroom.

Announced at short notice, tonight's more intimate affair acted as their first and only warm up, and - coming from one of those nuts - proved as euphoric and life-affirming an evening as anybody could have hoped.

There's a certain paradox there, as euphoria certainly isn't an emotion you'd readily associate with Arab Strap's music.

Bleak, murky and burdened by sexual desire, the duo's songs exhibit a distinctly Scottish brand of melancholy, characterised by Middleton's hungover arrangements and Moffat's stark, often crude storytelling.

There's a reason why they their initial farewell was promoted with the slogan 'Ten Years of Tears,' but there was nevertheless a unique joy in hearing the old favourites dusted down for the very first time.

The intervening years have, of course, brought about changes. Malcolm certainly has less hair than he used to, and Aidan's beard has blossomed into a badger-like middle-aged wonder, yet these physical differences are insignificant compared to the evolution they've undergone musically.

Indeed, far from stepping back, the pair are perhaps enjoying the most prolific period of their careers, turning in acclaimed solo albums, superb collaborations and in Aidan's case even a feature-length film.

The consequence is that as well as being older and wiser, they're both much superior musicians to when they last shared a stage, and the benefits were there for all to hear.

Take Girls Of Summer and New Birds, for instance, whose low-key mumbles were replaced with a fresh, spoken word clarity; their misadventures beaming through as though presented in "warts and all" high definition.

Performing as a full seven-piece band, it was obvious from the off that they'd put their rehearsal time to good use. They were, in Moffat's words, "match ready."

Ironically, the only hitch came during their most popular song, with the vocalist still requiring a lyric sheet to recall The First Big Weekend's wordy stream of consciousness.

It did him little good, and by the end was scrunched up at the crowd's feet - an appropriately ramshackle rendition of a shambolic, nostalgic classic.

While their reputation as serial miserablists is largely justified, this bumper two-hour set also had its share of colourful moments - and no, I'm not just referring to the language!

An often-overlooked EP track, the shrouded techno of Rocket, Take Your Turn in particular proved an unexpected highlight, as did the seductive throb of Cherubs, which remarkably was given its first ever live outing.

The core duo were even prepared to take acoustic requests, randomly choosing Meanwhile At The Bar A Drunkard Muses and I Would Have Liked Me A Lot Last Night from a fans' ballot they'd left by the merch desk.

All told, it quite simply made for the perfect Arab Strap experience; made all the more special by the fact it'll likely never happen again.

This isn't a reunion that'll last or spawn new material. In essence, these songs document times of reckless youthful excess, so it's only right that this tour is all about remembering, not reliving, past glories.

By the end of this week, Arab Strap may truly be no more, and if tonight demonstrated anything it's that folks in London, Manchester and Glasgow best enjoy them while they can.