In October 2013, four friends and I, all fresh out of high school, packed ourselves in at the front of Newcastle’s premier live music venue, The Cambridge Hotel. My first Cambridge concert as an 18-year-old was meant to be special; the venue’s reputation preceded it. Sure, the floors were sticky, the stench of sweat and spilled beer was thick and the supposed air-conditioning was sputtering out a weak breeze at best, but I didn’t care.
We were there to see the Jungle Giants, who were then touring their debut album. They were supported by Northeast Party House, who at that stage only had an EP to their name. But the Melbourne group also had the anarchic anthem ‘Youth Allowance’. Rambunctious and explosive, the band enraptured me, and their set would go on to become a pivotal moment in my relationship of music. Seeing global megastars in stadiums is inherently epic, but there’s an irreplaceable magic in witnessing a small, local band roar beyond the walls of a small, local venue.
Such is, or was, The Cambridge Hotel (The Cambo to locals): part pub, part hotel, part club, part restaurant for a minute there, and, of course, part live music venue. After opening in 1958, the hotel slowly became a key establishment of Newcastle’s nightlife. While once competing with the Star Hotel or the Newcastle Workers Club, in the latter half of its lifespan The Cambo came to dominate the city’s live music scene.
But come early July, it will close its doors to make way for student accommodation. Punters have long been taunted by rumours of the venue’s closure, through sales of the building and changes of ownership. This time, it’s for real. To go out with a bang and to cement its legacy, the venue is hosting a three-day farewell festival, with some of the country’s biggest acts sending it off.
“In 1993, I was 15 or 16,” Jamieson, who grew up in the rural suburb of Byabarra, tells NME, “and obsessed with a band out of Wollongong called Tumbleweed.
“My Dad, bless his heart, noticed that Tumbleweed were playing three hours away in a venue in Newcastle… So Dad and I drove down on a Thursday night in winter. We get to the venue, The Cambridge Hotel, and realise it’s an 18+ show – I couldn’t get into the venue.
“The Meanies were playing that night, and I noticed them load their guitars and I just watched them as a fan. I also noticed that you sneak through the carpark and watch the stage through chicken wire. So I stood outside watching them, thanks to Dad, and then we got in the car and drove home – a six-hour round trip.”
“The networking at The Cambridge is unmatched – people from all walks of life just enjoying live music” – Talakai
Such stories of devotion are not uncommon when you talk to people about The Cambo – especially artists born and bred in Newcastle, who tell NME just how important the institution was for not only fostering new acts, but giving a community of local live music fans a hub.
“It was crucial for me,” says rapper Talakai. “I saw Illy there when I was 18 and he gave me life-changing advice to overcome my stage fright for what was my very first show the next day at a different venue.
“Aussie hip-hop isn’t for everyone, I know that, but to see other people just vibing and coming to shows to network as well was instrumental to building relationships and my career.”
Of course, The Cambo was instrumental in building many careers, most famously Silverchair – Newcastle’s most famous musical export by far. Footage of the band’s show at the venue in 1995, when Daniel Johns was just 16, is available online, and the unseasoned grit of that performance is palpable almost 30 years later, even through a blurred lens and pixels on the screen.
This is a band who in that year released their now iconic debut album ‘Frogstomp’, supported Red Hot Chili Peppers on tour, played on the roof of New York’s Radio City Music Hall and took to the Saturday Night Live stage. Yet, all roads lead back to The Cambo.
Since that period, which also loosely coincided with the rise of other Newcastle acts like The Screaming Jets, The Cambridge Hotel became a hotspot for live music on the east coast of Australia – which, for Novocastrian music fans at least, was essential. With Newcastle just two hours north of Sydney, acts could easily save themselves the hassle by forgoing a show there for an extra Sydney date. If and when they did, Newcastle music fans could either endure the five-hour round train trip to Sydney and back, or just miss out.
Despite that, the number of acts that have played The Cambo is astonishing – their names at one point splayed across the walls and ceiling of the venue on drum skins. Australian acts that went onto headline juggernaut international festivals, like Tame Impala, RÜFÜS Du Sol and Parkway Drive, all got their feet wet at The Cambo. And some of music’s biggest global stars have stopped by the venue, like The Black Keys, Blink-182 and, perhaps most infamously, Childish Gambino in 2015.
Depending on who you talk to, Donald Glover was either not fulfilling what he promised for a full show or The Cambo misrepresented the gig. But, after Gambino performed as part of an ensemble DJ set and then largely took a backseat, Newcastle patrons booed him off stage in what would become a notorious, headline-making fiasco.
“I can still remember the obscenities etched into the fog-encrusted windows of the old ‘glasshouse’ main room smokers’ area,” Newcastle duo RAAVE TAPES say. “Truly the stuff of folklore.”
“Just being able to stand side of stage [at The Cambridge Hotel] and see how it all goes down with these bigger acts… made the whole thing feel within reach” – RAAVE TAPES
Whether the venue’s biggest gigs were successful or not, it still allowed Newcastle acts to get a front-row seat and access to artists whose success they aspired to. The Cambo also proved resistant to the detrimental impact that suffocating nightlife laws – at one point the most restrictive in the state, possibly nationwide – had on the live music scene citywide.
“The networking at The Cambridge is unmatched – people from all walks of life just enjoying live music,” Talakai says. RAAVE TAPES, who are curating The Cambo’s last-ever long weekend celebrations in June, agree. Merely opening for mid-to-large Australian acts at the venue helped build their presence, the duo say.
“We were lucky enough to open for these acts early on in our career and make some friends from a bit farther afield than your typical Novocastrian circles.
“Just being able to stand side of stage and see how it all goes down with these bigger acts, and getting to chat with them, made the whole thing feel within reach, more attainable and achievable.”
In just a few months, that venue and the opportunities it provided will be gone. Capacity-wise, The Cambridge Hotel served as a conduit between the incredibly intimate gigs at small pubs to the larger-scale, and possibly more distant, performances at venues like NEX and the seldom-used Newcastle Entertainment Centre.
The loss of Newcastle’s flagship live music space in The Cambridge hotel will be no doubt be a significant blow to the city’s live music scene.
“Losing a venue of this calibre is generally going to mean less bands will come to town,” RAAVE TAPES say. “The less bands that come to town, the less support slots pop up and the less tangible this whole music thing becomes for a new generation of local talent.”
That said, other live venues are helping to fill the void. The Hamilton Station Hotel, with the help of its booking agent Spencer Scott, has slowly established itself as a destination venue for small local acts, and can even hold larger-capacity concerts after a recent refurbishment. Talakai and RAAVE TAPES both shout out other venues, like Adamstown Bowling Club and the Newcastle Hotel, as places where local acts can still get their foot in the door.
Beyond that, the Victoria Theatre is set to re-open 60 years after its last staged performance, which will make it New South Wales’ oldest active live music venue. Together, these venues will honour the history of Newcastle’s rich live music scene, and continue to strengthen the city’s cultural and artistic impact.
But, frankly, there will never be another Cambo. Its wins and losses, the triumphs of its alumni and the community forged there are all the stuff of legend.
“It’s going to be so missed, that venue,” Phil Jamieson says. His father, who drove him to the Cambo and back 30 years ago, will be at the final show when Grinspoon play. “Dad might get up and sing some blues with me, who knows?”
That farewell show will take place on the weekend of Friday, June 23 to Sunday, June 25. Peking Duk, Dune Rats, The Rubens, Illy, Jack River, British India and more will all be joining Grinspoon for the venue’s send-off. And Jamieson can’t wait to take it all in.
“Nothing will ever replace breathing in that smell of The Cambridge one last time.”