by Margaret Chrystall
IDEAS fizz round XpoNorth, let loose during the discussions and panels at the two-day Inverness creative industries event - and they're buzzing in the air by the time the evening music showcases kick in.
And it was the words of Matteo Alessi – a fourth generation family member of the global Italian design company Alessi – that got you thinking as the first of the 80 bands kicked in.
Asked what idea he believed his company sells – in the way Nike sells fitness not sportswear – he replied.
"People don’t buy what you do, but why you do it."
And it can be true of music – its makers and fans too.
GARDEN OF ELKS sell a spiky guitar-driven slice of drum-heavy aggression with barely comprehensible lyrics wrapped in Inverness mainman Niall Strachan’s batty, sarcastic banter.
And as at the Phoenix last Wednesday, an Elks set is as much an art happening as a gig.
But the shining faces of the Elks’ fans on the frontline at the gig guarantee that the Creative Scotland cash contribution that’s gone into helping get the summer release of the next album out will be more than secure.
The band’s fans buy into the idea of this edgy sound.
The ‘why’ of creating music is also at the heart of Edinburgh’s FUTURE GET DOWN – Inverness-raised Oliver Kass morphing from last electronic dance band Homework into the purer and rawer sound you get from the latest live five-piece line-up.
A packed Scotch & Rye early last Wednesday night witnessed the part-human, part-machine sound with live drums, synths, keyboards, bass and – despite the white forensic-style bodysuits and set-aside dehumanising wire masks, Kass had never sounded more emotional, Scottish or less robotic.
Matteo Alessi had also pinpointed one of the points on his uncle’s "Success Test" to work out why a product is likely to be successful: "Design has to create emotions."
Music knows that’s true.
There’s a huge power from a performance where the singer opens up to a crowd of strangers – Jemma Tweedie from Nairn’s latest incarnation as LILURA is a good example. Also in Scotch & Rye, with live drums and tracks supporting the title track of Lilura’s last EP No Control, the singer’s abandon made it an early highlight of her set.
Also unafraid to open up, dues paid busking and a music degree underway, is Cromarty’s TAMZENE – the first signing for Belladrum’s new record label – looking fully at ease behind her keyboard in Penta as she introduced her first single Lullaby.
On The Rapal stage in the Phoenix, Stornoway’s HOWLING LORDS might have their setlist written on "a little pink post-it" but the heavy guitar and dirty blues of their songs adds up to a powerful sound from singer and guitarist Felix Saunders and drummer Jens Johansson.
Stepping over to the Penta Hotel to catch CARMA and the contrast couldn’t have been greater with gentle ukulele from Dingwall singer Carmen Beaton and Nairn’s Kenna Ross on keyboards for alternative folk and new song The Keep Song.
Caithness’s PURE GRIEF were packed onto the tiny stage in the Market Bar where singer Peter Bacon dedicated "a song to the ladies".
Maybe brave when serried ranks of bearded blokes were getting into the music.
And more bearded blokes were in force at the Mercure Bar where Inverness/ Glasgow band SCHNARFF SCHNARFF and frontman Myles Bonnar were rampaging in style demonstrating what "staccato grunge rock" really means with Flip The Cross.
THE OXIDES had packed them in at Tooth & Claw where the Inverness rock masters of mod/grunge were showing off new Hungarian drummer Tamás with a set-topping Going Overboard.
Edinburgh’s urban indie foursome JAMIE & SHOONY were tearing it up with punter dancing wild enough to match Jamie’s impeccably choreographed hip hop moves and rabble-rousing set-opening "Ah Woo! Ah Woo! chorus.
MIRACLE GLASS COMPANY’s Trouble was ending a set in Blackfriars that seemed to have been an object lesson in astounding first-time listeners with the melody and guitar-wizardry Xpo had first witnessed last year.
TIJUANA BIBLES in Hootanannys fronted by Tony Costello still grab a set by its throat – sharing new single/video Pariah late into it with 13 "I’m a Pariah!" chants to join in with in the run-up to their double date at King tut’s this weekend.
Frustratingly, sound check issues had meant that the restrained glacial promise of the EXCITE exchange musician from Sweden MIRA ASAMA could only be heard in half a song – before catching the performing power of DECLAN WELSH AND THE DECADENT WEST.
Declan was one of around 18 acts that also played last year’s XpoNorth – progression evident in both emotional performance and ideas from the evolving magnificence of three favourites MEDICINE MEN, MIRACLE GLASS COMPANY and TIJUANA BIBLES.
Declan is a frontman who has no fear of looking his crowd straight in the eyes with a tight band performing grade-A songs.
From the political chant of No Paseran, Declan harvesting election night energy to get us pumping fists in the air, to the relatively mundane business of a broken relationship in Useless, it was all good.
Well-observed lyrics in Useless picked out the kind of thing that makes a partner’s loss sore – "You said my name like no-one else ever did".
And just when acceptance seems to be kicking in, there’s a mood-change with the broken-voiced last line from Declan – "What am I to do?".
Move on – might be one answer and it’s what a fixture on the Inverness music scene, JAMES MACKENZIE, is doing as he heads for Berlin this week, though not before a packed Blackfriars witnessed one more good-time set, Let’s Go Fishing the big finish.
But it was BLOODLINES from Fort William, the Black Isle and Ayrshire – all now moved to Glasgow – who created a melting fireball of energy in a Mercure set that included crowd body-slamming and lead singer Jamie Coltart bare-chested and body-surfing across the crowd.
It crowned a devastatingly aggressive performance that also delivered the band’s new single All Your Love – impressively "released about half an hour ago" – an idea Alessi might have loved: box-fresh product united with pure emotion.
It made an all-guns blazing finale to XpoNorth - built on later by SPRING BREAK who added big bad beats and a gutsier than ever sounding vocal from Emily Mackinnon to counterpoint Ross's raps and Ben's musicianship in The Slouch and Alone To The Metronome "a sad song masquerading as a happy song".
That worked for those of us who had been XpoNorthing for two solid days of 16-hour stints packed with new ideas, fresh perspectives and an onslaught of music to get emotional about.