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Gig review

Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival

One Punter and a weekend pass.
 
I arrived ridiculously and uncharacteristically early – four thirty in the afternoon and about 20 hours prior to the first band taking the stage. My borrowed tent would be another four hours in arriving.Time to walk around and soak things in. The setting gets full marks for unspoiled beauty: set in rolling fir tree covered hills in the open fields of a working farm, it became clear at the gate that the organisers were of a mind to leave it unspoiled after the weekend passed. During my first few hours on that first evening the dominant sound was that of agricultural diesel engines – the engines of vehicles laying out the last of the temporary infrastructure and the recycling points for the tented town that was slowly forming over the undulating site.

The immediate impression of this festival is that it is one that has grown up organically for the right reasons. Okay, the increase in crowds to five figures does involve some necessary commercialism and regulation (not least to leave the place as it was found). This commercialism is still light years away from the cynical beer selling exercise that T in the Park has not just become, but always was. Music enthusiasts have been involved from the start in Belladrum; T in the Park on the other hand has the air of something cooked up in a Glasgow marketing office… a Glastonbury-lite without the history, an event where the hospitality and media exercise is probably bigger than the entire operation at Belladrum. Musically, just another part of the early summer treadmill where bands can play to distant crowds and sell plastic and MP3s without the need for rainy Tuesdays in provincial towns. There is now even effectively a futures market in T in the Park tickets! Belladrum may not have stage upon stage of NME favourites but it does not lack honesty and quirkiness.

Friday
I wake up early and have a civilised breakfast courtesy of friends in the Tipi village. The crowd is gathering in earnest and the queues are building. 12 noon and it’s on to the first band.
The Lorelei (Hothouse Stage)
Aberdeen based The Lorelei are well-travelled troubadours and no strangers to the Highlands, and are back after a hiatus of several years to what is probably their biggest gig to date. The last time I saw them was in the early nineties in a village hall at Poolewe – driven there on a night off from work near Ullapool by one of Belladrum’s founding organisers. It must have been a 80 mile round trip.
The easiest way to describe The Lorelei is punk folk – fast songs augmented by mandolin and fiddle. The set is delivered with energy by a band who are happy to be back playing together and cannot hide their delight to be on the big stage. The crowd are sizable and enthusiastic but not the stomping mass that I have witnessed at past gigs. The early slot explains this – the are a band best appreciated when the drinks have flowed and the dancing’s begun. It is still nevertheless a perfect Celtic tinged way to start off the day.

A visit to the beer tent, a wander around then back to the Hothouse for another band from the North East.
Jyrojets (Hothouse Stage)
The Hothouse has filled up and there is energy down the front. Local heroes Jyrojets look the part and seem at home on the big stage. It is not surprising that they have a sizable local following but they win over the many more curious onlookers who have swelled the crowd. Jyrojets tick all the boxes. The look, the passion, the attitude and the tunes. The music has harmonies backing up Colin Fraser‘s strong, sometimes gravelled voice, big guitar and even bigger choruses. They are apparently the first band from Inverness to have signed a major record deal. And from what I have seen of other festivals on the T.V., I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid had they appeared on the coverage (at this rate they probably will next year); they seemed to have what is required for that stab at the big time.
For me this is where I am put off. They are a bit too identikit. Perhaps not enough of their own identity in there to hoist them above the generic. It takes about four songs for my friend to turn around and go “oh, they’re from Inverness” (they had won her over by this point anyway – the fact that they were local was a bonus). From the band’s point of view this may be a strength that has people up and down the U.K. batting on their behalf. From the crowd’s point of view, by the time Jyrojets closed with their debut single Favourite Thing About Jane’ (a song made for a festival), all they care about is the music. The chorus of “we’re all drinking in the city” is ringing out in the tent. My misgivings about them have me firmly in the minority.
A little wander is now on the cards, via the beer tent to the Venus Flytrap Palais no less to take in an ensemble from New York dealing in some form of Romanian gypsy music. With nothing else I desperately want to see listed so I follow my friend’s recommendation. Where this interest in World music from a long time and almost puritanical punk had came from puzzles me for a while. The answer had been staring me in the face all along in the shape of his Gogol Bordello t-shirt.

Luminescent Orchestii (Venus Flytrap Palais)
This four piece consists of a double bass, a resonator guitar ,two violins and occasional melodeon. The music: I cannot pin down its exact origins but seemed to be vaguely East European with a few twists. All four know their way around their instruments well, most songs upbeat and instrumental. The guitar is played in a percussive manner, combining with the bass to grind the songs and the playing is furious at times. It doesn’t take long for dancing to break out in the tent. Although due to play on the small Potting Shed stage later in the weekend, the music is best appreciated in the bigger sound system where all the subtleties in the playing come across.
Not what I anticipated seeing over the weekend but an enjoyable forty minutes or so.

The beauty of Belladrum is the compact size of the festival. The stages were all two minutes apart – although the undulating landscape meant that there’s no one vantage point to view the site from. Whilst waiting for the next band on the Venus Flytrap stage I take a walk over to catch some of The Earlies’ set. The three songs that I witness remind me of how I approached their album. It’s an album I feel if I gave it several more listens that it would reel me in. It’s good, but didn’t hit me right away. In this age of easily found and increasingly cheap music, I moved on to something else – always meaning to revisit it.
It‘s much the same with their set. Had there been no other predetermined attractions I would have stayed. However, they don’t hook me in so I bugger off to what I thought would be a psychedelic mediaeval extravaganza.

Circulus (Venus Flytrap Palais)
I knew about the gimmick element of this band regarding the mediaeval stage attire – Michael Tyack once greeted a journalist at 11 o’clock in the morning wearing a suit of armour. What the gimmick hides is a band steeped in music from a more recent period – namely the 60s/70s folk rock of Fairport Convention and Pentangle. The learned friend who accompanies me also informed me later that there was a generous use of prog rock time signatures in their set. Sure there are a few old instruments used, but there is also a Moog synthesiser in there too. At least, there is a Moog usually on the recordings and other live performances. At Belladrum the Moog is missing, replaced by a female violinist, who makes something of an effort to look mediaeval but the the mini dress looks like a ye olde Marye Quainte creation from the early part of the second Elizabethan age.
The Moog is a loss. The sound is a bit thin and the set seems to be somewhat half circularised. Songs like ‘My Body’s Made of Sunlight’ and ‘Willow Tree’ hold up reasonably well but there seems to be little conviction. Mr Tyack’s first question is “do you even know who we are?”. For those that don’t he doesn’t seem to have much desire to go for it and win them over. Resembling Brian Cant facially, (said in a cockney accent) there is no doubt that Mr Tyack is also a moaning cant. “More vocals, more violin“, “I haven’t got my fender amp, so I have to use this Marshall – we don’t usually sound this heavy metal” (??? If only !), “fuck Ryan Air” (no oxen drawn cart then ?) . They didn’t seem to be enjoying it and the sparse crowd weren’t really too fired up in return.
They put the last song out to request. After ignoring my learned friend’s request for the Rentaghost theme they make one last stab to liven things up with what I think was ‘Dragon‘s Dance’.
It’s entertaining in a way. At least in future I know to let my prejudices take over when encountering a band who sing about dragons, pixies and faeries.

Whilst on walkabout I spot a couple of imposing leather clad guys complete with military peak caps. Ah, it’s Julian Cope. He didn’t look dressed for a solo acoustic show. And he wasn’t. The thing I like about this acid addled arch druid is his sheer passion. An occasional dip into his headheritage website shows Cope writing about music with the fervour of a teenager. He still harbours a genuine kick out of turning people on to something that they are unlikely to have heard. Admittedly most of it seems like impenetrable nonsense but the world needs people like Mr Cope. Not sure why or for what purpose, I just know it does.
On to the show. Wearing tonight’s influences on his sleeve, or more accurately the back of his leather jacket in the shape of an MC5 stars and stripes painted on, the set is delivered in the style of a Stooges / MC5 influenced three piece. Solid heavy bass, cymbal washed drumming and big dirty riffs are the order of the day. My mouth is watering at the prospect of Sunspots delivered in such a fashion. My mouth however is positively slavering at the prospect of The Needles so off I go during the fourth song.

The Needles (BBC Seedlings Stage)
The Needles seedlings? A bit puzzling. Particularly as I hear the next day that this may be their last gig. Not that I give a shit about the name of the tent and characteristically neither do they it would seem. I misjudge the timing and reach the tent just as the last chord of the first song ‘Let You Down’ rings out. However, a small disappointment to live with when compared against the rest of the set. The energy and craft is still there in the delivery. The craft is there in the songs too but the influences have spread from the old rock and roll that was the heart beat of their early recordings. ‘Dead and Alive’ has a slightly dark edge to it and wouldn’t sound ou, but to call ex-Owsley Sunshine bassist Alpha Mitchell a stand in for the night would be doing him a disservice. He doesn’t look out of place and ran Dave Dixon close for sheer energy expended. Two songs in and I know that I’m witnessing one of the weekend’s high points. Come the end there are calls for an encore; they could have done three – I don’t think anyone was in a hurry to see the Magic Numbers. ‘Teenage Bomb’ was the ultimate closer. A set book-ended by two class singles. I am still of a belief that on their night (and this was one) that The Needles could win over any audience. The Seedlings tent was busy enough but I felt sorry for the multitude around the site who were completely clueless as to what had just occurred under their very noses.

Satisfied, I wander around to the garden stage – a large tree lined area with a terrace at the back. The Magic Numbers are keeping the crowd happy and throw in a pleasant surprise of Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Some Velvet Morning’ with Martha Wainwright guesting on vocals. The setting is impressive. At one point I see the annoying and needless festival practise of a filled plastic beer glass getting thrown through the crowd. Ah well, monkey see, monkey do I suppose. A wander back through the sight and the mystery of a small glass fronted caravan done up like a jukebox is explained. There is a band squeezed inside, finishing a Beefheart number and kicking into ‘Folsom Prison Blues’. Every pub should have one.
 
Saturday
Nobody can be arsed cooking at the Tipi today so it’s a coffee instead. It’s not Starbucks, it’s not Gold Blend, but we‘ve got to get ourselves, back to the garden.
The Parsonage Choir (Garden Stage)
This is a pleasant way to ease into Saturday. A 30 strong choir and an acoustic guitar making a quite beautiful sound. Nice and sedate. The songs vary from numbers penned by Rabbie Burns, Peter Tosh through to Ian Curtis. The Loretta Lynn classic ‘Success Has Made a Failure of our Home’ brings a tear to some eyes in the audience. I settle for merely having a smile on my face during ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Ring of Fire’.
Some Cullen Skink and a bacon roll on the way to the Venus Flytrap Palais to see another act that I had not even considered when stepping off the bus on Thursday. By now I am used to my punk friends’ newly eclectic taste, but somewhat concerned for his future well being. I fear a future involving faux ethnic clothes and dinner parties sound tracked by the music of Azerbaijani goat herders. Thankfully his righteous disgust whilst passing a didgeridoo player reassures me that he has a handle on his new habit.
Orkestra Del Sol (Venus Flytrap Palais)
Ten people on stage armed with various brass instruments, drums, an accordion and a fiddle. Hailing from Edinburgh, the music that they produce comes from all over the world – from the Balkans to Latin America visiting the Mediterranean and Caribbean on the way. In uniform dark suits and red shirts there is an East European feel about them. The music is riotous and has the mid-afternoon crowd dancing. The visuals combine with on-stage theatrics (not to mention acrobatics) to make this a rounded show – more of a cabaret than a straightforward gig. Not a gig for the purist indie chinstroker but definitely a captivating forty minutes or so.
The rain starts to piss down so out of convenience I opt for Fake Bush in the Venus Flytrap Palais. I like the name of the tent and it provides shelter. A carefully considered decision that one. Fake Bush, I guess is either going to be a Kate Bush tribute act or perhaps, and this is a long shot, a band named after a merkin. My first guess is correct. She looks more like Maggie Philbin from a distance but certainly sounds like Kate Bush. The novelty quickly wears off before the first song is complete. The rain happens to intensify in inverse proportion to my enthusiasm for the onstage performance. The tent is filling up due to a combination of the weather and the proximity of Kate Nash’s appearance. By the end of Fake Bush there is a ten deep throng at the tent door and the police are holding back the crowd. Despite the rain, I magnanimously decide that I should free up some space for someone who genuinely wants to see Kate Nash. Besides, from what I have heard of her, the pissing rain seems preferable. I prefer Lily Allen who at least sounds a bit more fucking genuine when she swears. I wander about, take in a cajun band – The Federals from Ullapool – on the outdoor Potting Shed stage. I pop in to the permanently empty hospitality area again – just because I can. As before, I quickly pop out again. I view it as quite positive that this area is empty. I suppose at bigger festivals such areas offer a sanctuary from the pandemonium generated by thousands of people milling about as part of the oversold marketing exercise. At Belladrum there is no such need, or desire, to escape.
I make my way to the Seedlings stage in the hope of catching Le Reno Amps. As I stub my cigarette out at the door they are just finishing ‘Wound Up’. It turns out to be their last song. Poor timing on my part. I decide to hang around and take in the next band – whoever they may be.

Figure 5 (BBC Seedlings Stage)
I haven’t a clue who they are or what they are like. Taking the stage it looks promising. In more tribal times, judging by how they look, I would have considered them to be mods. They start of with a terracing style chant which kicks into a song with one guitar playing a fuzzed up, almost surf style riff that forms the backbone of the garage punk style starter. The rest of the set continues in the same vain. A happy accident indeed that I caught them. Energy combined with compact, predominately chord driven riffs power the set. No flannel, just direct three minute songs that get to the point – exemplified by ‘Rally the Troops’. I know at the time where I think they are pulling the influences from. Back home, a look at their myspace lists the raw ingredients for their sound with an impeccable list of bands and inspirations starting back in the sixties and running right through to the present day.
The rhythm section is powerful and solid with occasional flair in the shape of fills and great bass runs to up the ante. The vocals hold the tunes while the guitars interact to give the dynamics. ‘Part of the Problem’ has a quick lead intro and outro, a superb short solo with the rest built on the chords. No lead for the sake of fannying about and showing off.
The coming single ‘Nitty Gritty’ is one of the highpoints. Ebbing and flowing round a slice of life tale and built on some more great guitar work. I leave at the end of their performance still not quite believing my luck at catching such a good set.

By happy coincidence this gives me five minutes to go and see the start of Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby’s set. I feel like I’m on a roll.
The Grassroots Stage is sponsored by a brewery. No big red T’s in sight. Just organic beer and lager, brewed in the Black Isle selling at a bar in the tent.
When I arrive the set is underway with one of Amy Rigby’s songs – ‘Till the Wheels Come Off’. Eric is on bass and complimenting her acoustic with some great bass riffs.
I was unsure about this pairing but any doubts are vanquished immediately. Their voices work well together on each others songs, as does Eric‘s guitar work. The set has a degree of coherence too. Amy’s ‘Are We Ever Going to Have Sex Again’? follows the theme of passionless relationships contained in Eric’s ‘Someone Must Have Nailed Us Together’. Both have a sizable back catalogue so the main difficulty must be narrowing down the songs to include in a 40 minute set. The inclusion of ‘Kilburn Lane’ from Eric’s 1992 Hitsville House Band is a pleasant surprise. As are the songs in Amy’s set – most unknown to me, though ‘Don’t Break the Heart That Needs You’ and ‘Dancing with Joey Ramone’ stand out. One song that was always going to be in the set is Eric’s ‘Whole Wide World’ – which has now been recorded by The Proclaimers. The audience is singing along. The pair on stage stop and it’s hands in the air time leaving the singing to the crowd. Mr Goulden, though smiling, seems a tad awkward about this – announcing that it was one of Amy’s fantasies for this to happen, he cranks back in with the guitar. Both leave the stage looking happy at a job well done and to an audience equally as satisfied.
The set up for next band starts to take place on the stage. An old piano is the centrepiece and a bizarre looking old style drum kit catches my attention. I am on a roll I feel so I will check them out.

Duke Special (Grassroots Stage).
The set up of this band – if the electric bass was swapped for a double bass – is such that they are equipped to have made music at the turn of the last century. Piano, percussion, clarinet/sax and bass produced the sound,while the band are done up in Victorian decorative military dress which adds a vaudevillian feel that fits in with their antiquated instrumental set up. The songs themselves have a vaudeville feel at times, ‘Everyone Wants a Little of Something Good’ certainly has a quirky up beat feel. The songs are dominated by Duke’s voice and piano, and augmented by sympathetic and at times eccentric drumming from Chip Bailey along with the interventions of clarinet and sax. The lyrics are tender and the songs delicately balanced. The dressing up, whilst undoubtedly a gimmick does have the effect of adding to the whole warm feel of the show. All quite intimate really with the PA used to amplify the sound without swamping it by cranking the volume up. The songs are catchy and well crafted- in ‘Portrait’, Duke exhibits a talent for devising both lyrical and musical hook lines. A burst at the end has a controlled cacophony with Duke doing some scratching on an old 78rpm gramophone.
The whole set is engaging and pleasant, but just lleaves me wondering if four blokes with modern instruments, wearing jeans and t shirts, took the stage if the effect would have been the same. The songs however do seem to be wrapped up in the whole package and at the end I have some of the tunes stuck in my head…plus, I can’t really criticise a band for making an effort to be entertaining and engaging.

That was essentially the end of the festival for me. I walked about aimlessly, bumped into a few friends but never gave anything my full attention after that. James pleased the crowd as would be expected. The Pigeon Detectives had the Hothouse Tent heaving and sweating – seeming like a diet Arctic Monkeys to my untutored ears.
Tired but happy I trudged off in the mud for a final beer and a discussion of the days events before bed. Vows were made to return.

(more Belladrum coverage)