'Three days a year like this would see me right!'
IF you had to pick one word to sum up Belladrum 2019 and its three days of sunny, perfect weather, the almost alien beauty of Saturday headliner JESS GLYNNE, Captain Kirk-like command of ELBOW’s Guy Garvey conducting his crowd and CHVRCHES futuristic vision of pop, it would be this one: cosmic.
And we haven’t even mentioned Hawkwind yet.
Some realignment of the planets made sure that the predicted three solid days of rain melted into nothingness – maybe some mad scientists got together in this year’s new Boffinarium in the Walled Garden to sort it out.
And in between dancing Star Trek girls, men wearing spaceships above their heads and giant green grasshopperesque aliens on stilts, there was a universeful of music to explore.
Early standouts on Thursday included THE COWBOY WAY from America on the Potting Shed Stage, uniting the story of Scotland’s drovers with the American cowboys some of them became. The whole story probably was summed up in a song that started with the traditional song Loch Lomond and mixed in ‘Fare thee well it’s a cowboy I will be’.
Locals SCOOTY AND THE SKYHOOKS packed the Hothouse with a medley of soul and classic RnB, including the new soul of Duffy’s Mercy, even some Four Seasons – December, 1963 (Oh What A Night).
The relaxed feel of Glasgow’s RUSSELL STEWART – both solo and with his band – reminded you how good the Ice House Stage can be for an intimate space bathed in evening sun to enjoy the music Russell himself has described as ”neo-soul and funk leaning on jazz”. Songs like Who Am I To You?, Old Wounds – and the call and return style ‘conversation’ in the song Temper, where guitarist Lizzie Reid and Russell sang ‘Can you handle me?’ back and forth at each other, were among the highlights of the set, as was Moss Taylor’s super jazz-cool keyboards.
With Thursday’s less packed programme allowing you to warm up for the hotter pace of the second two days, there was time to explore and to spend a little longer with musicians clearly enjoying getting together. Two were MARK FORBES AND FRIENDS at the Mobile Moose Stage and across the way JOE HILL’S WAKE with a hoedown sound on banjo, guitar and fiddle.
Starting off a stage is a big moment. HIGHLAND VOICES CHOIR offered meltingly beautiful harmonies in I Will Leave The Light On and Freedom to get the Garden Stage started on Friday. LIONAL, following them, punted old and new songs – new single Hold On We’re Going Down. A few more older songs in the setlist was possibly explained by having drafted in a replacement drummer Sean Fleming, who might not have been able to learn all the newer songs in time. A collarbone break saw drummer Russell Montgomery in a sling swapping his drum sticks for a shaker, while Sean stepped in. Legends.
Second up there on Saturday, TAMZENE from Cromarty showed why record labels are buzzing around after some years of hard work and honing her talent. The Hothouse delights in offering at least one day of a metal maelstrom in the #wakeupcallslot – and KING KOBALT ended their set with a suitably apocalyptic energy with No Way Back.
The DAZED DIGITAL AGE brought retro-futuristic electro and new single Love & Reward. And on Saturday, JOSEPHINE SILLARS AND THE MANIC PIXIE DREAMS centred on the searing clarity of Josephine’s voice and the band fused their talents with guests Butterscotch from Spring Break and Girobabies' Mark McGhee on one song with its rare mention of politics at this year’s Belladrum in Problems Of Power. The other was THE DIHYDRO’s stormy Seedlings Stage winner Nigel Farage.
Things that need a tweak were few and far between this year. I still think the Seedlings stage is a bit close to Hothouse, though there were barely any drowning-each-other-out-moments I heard personally. And for safety, the Garden Stage crowds are still not all getting the message about lifting those blankets before the later acts – mad to still have them down for the Lewis Capaldi set, anyway.
Acts discovered this year included SOAK (Northern Irish singer songwriter Bridie Monds-Watson) – I'm late to the party, I know, but it's easy to instantly love her composed, commited style even on a first live listen. She also thoughtfully popped offstage at the end to greet some young fans and autograph a setlist. And Glasgow’s harmonious QUICHE charmed in the XpoNorth Seedings stage, with two vocalists and cleverly timed new single Grey Matter released in time to check out post-festival – “And there’s a video and everything!”, they said. Just moments of AARON SMITH and VUROMANTICS at the same stage on different days was enough of a taster to add them too to the check-out-later list.
Catching up with the ideas at the Verb Garden was a pleasure, resting your feet and cooling in the shady tent for a while on the sofas.
CAMERON McNEISH introduced people to the unique thinking and colourful writing style of Nan Shepherd and her book The Living Mountain. Writer SARA SHERIDAN took her book Where Are All The Women to try to give a spotlight for the Scottish women who have achieved but been sidelined across Scotland. Now Sara’s imaginary statues will become a reality. And ROSS BARNETT, palaeontologist and writer from Inverness of The Missing Lynx, talked about the rewilding of Scotland and how man made the stellar sea cow extinct in just 23 years. “Unfortunately they were very delicious,” explained Ross about the gentle but doomed creatures.
Rediscovering old friends, bands you love that are moving forward, developing and going with their own flow is always a thrill at Belladrum and it’s good to linger to give a bit more time to listen. BIS was one. Much older and probably much wiser in the time since they began as teenagers, they were electric in the Hothouse. The energy and pure bounce of the trio and their latest album Slight Disconnects got adrenalin flowing even as they rolled out a classic track like School Disco.
And great to see PAWS packing the same tent with plenty of people yelling out when singer Phillip Taylor asked how many were in from Tain.
Also, the line-up had added two new faces – a new? temporary? bassist and new guitarist, who had already been trained in the proper Tain-style greeting, word perfect with “You’re seein’ it!” The added two made a beefier sound adding to Phillip’s guitar and Josh Swinney’s drums. And in that set, songs like new album’s Your Church On My Bonfire’s The Watering Hole, sounded pristine, pained full of those signature Taylor lines that stick in your brain – “in one of your wardrobe's-worth of cashmere skirts”. Then there’s the loops that live in your brain as you march across the fields of Belladrum, humming “I'm tired of the back and forth/ Between the watering hole/ And Kennoway Drive’.
Another personal favourite in the Hothouse was GLASVEGAS’s drama-fogged headline set there on Friday. Truthfully, even standing centre front at the barrier I could still barely make out a word at the start of the set. But after the red mist and the assault on the ears, everything melted down into a perfect mix of fight or flight response which saw the audience happily setting into a mega-singalong and a euphoric Glasvegas, loving the response they were getting.
“By the way, thank you so much,” frontman James Allan told the crowd. “We thought it was going to be empty in here!”
The songs included Geraldine, It Was My Own Cheating Heart, Go Square Go, Daddy’s Gone and the climax, a huge, monster version of the broken-hearted lover song Lots Sometimes, which gradually winds up into an almost hysterical, verging on the psychotic twist where the character singing the song turns out to be so far from over the beloved, it’s almost frightening.
But no other act I saw opened up to raw emotion and pure performance with anything that came close to Glasvegas’s intensity and sense of theatre.
Lines that stuck in your head long after that last walk out from Belladrum on Saturday night included Peat & Diesel's which had a habit of circling your brain. "Salt and pepper, Justin Bieber" and borrowed song Loch Maree Islands' "Show me Airigh n'Eilean/Below me Loch Maree" and "the royal oh!".
And Elbow's line from One Day Like This in a way sums up the charms of the Belladrum Festival, if you add a little change: – "Three days a year like this would see me right!".
So who will be the names that will forever sum up Belladrum 2019?
LEWIS CAPALDI (so popular they had to close the Garden Stage on a one-in, one-out basis for the first time ever). Great songs, word-perfect crowd. And from the star, an engaging modesty. He introduced himself with “For anyone who doesn’t know me” around the same time as the packed Garden Stage was being closed off to more people as it had reached capacity. Er, yes, we know who you are, Lewis.
PEAT & DIESEL – their popularity in the later replacement Sugar Hill Gang slot also saw the locking down of their stage, this time the Hothouse. And in their mixed set of in-jokes, revamped, gentle Highland songs and catchy, singalong celebrations of island life, they made time to thank the passionate crowds which have seen them instantly selling out venues like Glasgow’s Barrowlands – “Thanks to everyone who has been following us for the last year!”
JOHNNY MARR – had a swagger every bit as powerful as the retro hits by The Smiths.
THE CORAL – a big section of the crowd opted for the Liverpool band on the Hothouse rather than JESS GLYNNE, maybe not as popular with the rocky blokes as she was with a younger, family and more female crowd.
COLONEL MUSTARD AND THE DIJON 5 – proved the huge afternoon fun machine that once again got the crowd shimmying to Cross The Road as part of their all-ages package of treats.
Also memorable this year was the revival of one-time Inverness band THE WHISKYS, plus the heart-warming sight in the XpoNorth Seedlings stage of the growing army of fans for Moray’s exuberant funksters THE ROOV.
Post-fireworks thriller ASTRID made a late night festival bonus in the Seedlings tent.
Also, there was the not entirely unexpected no-show of chief rumour subject PAOLO NUTINI, who didn’t replace or join Jess Glynne.
And just to get in early with next year’s rumour, I’ve heard Madonna fancies a Highland festival gig (… OK, no I haven’t!)
But I’ll just point out I’ve heard Elvis is at a bit of a loose end for 2020 …
And anyway, what headliners would you choose for next year?