BELLADRUM REVIEW: Talk about a legendary return ...
Every year at Belladrum, a new conversation starts up. It’s got 25,000 voices now and though the following year’s one replaces it, it never really stops.
It just joins all the opinions, discoveries and surprises that have been out there since the festival started up in 2004 after Joe Gibbs dreamed a dream – and look what he did?
Legend in your own …. Bella-time
This year’s Belladrum got everyone to think big and get imaginations working on the theme of myths and legends.
Winged beasts rubbed feathered shoulders with Viking gods.
Unicorns arrived on stilts or in blow-up pairs, two-woman Nessies walked the fields.
Even what looked like the Honey Monster (see below) – that costume must have been hot! – was raising his golden furry head in the Garden Stage arena.
There was so much ingenuity and skill walking past for three days – all just to have a bit of fun.
It was good to see that was still so alive after two Bella-less years of hard times for everyone when the Italian garden was just a beautiful garden for two long summers – nothing to look forward to.
Once we knew Covid had robbed us twice, the wait seemed endless. And the absence left nothing to talk about in the many Bella-heavy exit discussions that usually last well into the autumn, the checking out of tracks and albums by your new favourite musicians, the booking of dates they will play and you will see for the rest of the year and beyond.
Facebook revealed a few people went ahead and held their own mini-Bellas in their back gardens. And there had been the online Belladrum, which was a great consolation – bands, including Rhythmnreel, had filmed songs onsite, which were bittersweet to watch at the time, when we were also living through the uncertainty of whether there would ever be a Belladrum again.
Maybe a bit like Sleeping Beauty’s courtiers waking up to a slightly altered world, a lot of us ventured on-site on Thursday to find the changes time had brought. You gradually took in the tweaks and alterations, as the familiar scent of cut grass hit your nostrils.
The new open-air Hot House stage, the scaling-down of Mother’s Ruin's schedule, the shifting of the Verb Garden to the Walled Garden area, the creation of the Moose Hollow area by uniting the Potting Shed and Trailer Trash stages – the apparent disappearance of the big pulsing heart at the top of the main stage steps (or did I just miss it, maybe?).
On all these things, everyone will have their different opinions.
Headliners – who did it for you?
One of the favourite of all debates starts once all the headliners have presented their main stage sets.
Thursday night’s main act EMELI SANDE divided people. Her current love of life – she mentioned her partner was with her – enhanced the sense of freedom and power in her strong vocal with oceans of emotion in tracks like her opener It Hurts. That power some people seemed to think was pushing her voice further than it wanted to go. But the buzz of joy from her performance was unmistakeable.
Rock n role models
And Emeli from Alford was just one example of all the talent on show of many strong women from near and far the festival had found to showcase this year.
From the highlife funk power and empowering presence of IBIBIO SOUND MACHINE’s almost scarily forceful vocals of Eno Williams to Glasgow’s UNINVITED on the Hot House stage to MARIA HALL in Moose Hollow and Cromarty’s TAMZENE, a quietly confident homegrown rising star on Grassroots, and – thanks to our reporter Rachel Smart’s top tip, I was lucky enough to catch a tiny taste of Moray’s Hay twins FAIR TRICKIT in Burke & Hair with their ukulele ode to fajitas – all of these women great examples of female talent for Bella kids to absorb and maybe one day emulate.
Sam Ryd-ing off into 2023
Maybe SAM ‘Star Man’ RYDER crying off from his Thursday Hot House headlining set as the first news to hit you on arrival first thing was gutting – he will be there next year. But from the size of the crowd that headed over to his slot to catch inspired-choice replacements PEAT & DIESEL, it was no tragedy!
VAN MORRISON technically headlined the main arena, though was on a little earlier with his band of star musicians on Friday.
Out in his powder-blue suit and straw hat, he hit us first with a gutsy harmonica solo, then sang us Dangerous from his new album What’s It Gonna Take?, gradually moving into the past.
Thank God For The Blues from last year’s Latest Record Project Vol 1 followed with its wry lyrics: “Singing’s what’s real, singing’s what’s true/ Singing that’s what I’m here to do…”.
Then fast, fast, fast and way, way back to the earliest days of Van’s incredibly long-delivering career to his 1964 cover with his band Them of Baby, Please Don’t Go, B-side Gloria!
It was the vintage good times always fired out by THE FRATELLIS that people were flocking to see after Van on Friday night.
Though loads of people talked afterwards about the inner struggle of deciding between that and just 20 minutes later, both the Hot House headliners STIFF LITTLE FINGERS and at the Grassroots, blues prodigy CHRISTONE KINGFISH INGRAM.
Checking out the music of ‘Kingfish’ first, it was impossible to leave …
At 23, Christone is a stunning prospect.
Both his voice – deep, bassy and dripping with emotion – and his virtuoso guitar-playing, mean the blues have a new hero who also embraces rock, the attitude and honesty of rap, but also honours the legacy of his own heroes, such as Muddy Waters and BB King.
He writes songs about all of it – and played many from his Grammy-winning contemporary blues album 662, the postcode of his hometown Clarksdale, Mississippi.
During the set, he left the stage to go on a walkabout playing in the crowd.
He got back up onstage to finish his set with the classic blues of 662’s Long Distance Woman and its muscular intro riff into his own inspired cover of Hey Joe – including playing the strings with his teeth – before the longest applause I think I've ever heard at Belladrum.
One day they’ll be headliners …
Saturday night’s SHED SEVEN surely bagged my Shoulda Been Headliners award this year.
Along with hyperactive frontman Rick Witter, everything about their matey, melody-fuelled good-time set reminded you how great a gig you get in their company.
Yes, there’s something strangely old-fashioned in a way – the Britpop tag, the way Rick supped ale not PC water between songs, the shout-outs. But those were all about people planning and living their lives to a Shed Seven soundtrack, like the couple who had their first date watching the band in Aberdeen and are still together, or the others on their 21st time seeing the band.
All those singalong classics, On Standby, Going For Gold with Suspicious Minds mashup, Disco Down, Dolphin. Who wouldn’t want to spend an hour or two chasing rainbows with the Sheds as a sunny Garden Stage dips into darkness?
But for 2022, NILE RODGERS & CHIC united the thousands packing the Garden Stage arena space to groove with no limits.
Nile ran us through a career-best of the songs the Chic brand had flowed out for others – from Daft Punk, David Bowie, Madonna to Diana Ross, Sister Sledge, Duran Duran.
But the Chic songs made an irresistible start to the set – Chic Cheer, Dance, Dance Dance, (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah), Everybody Dance – guaranteed an arena full of smiles.
Was the song-medley format a tiny bit cheesy, as one punter thought? Maybe. But that band, those voices, those songs …
Only the call to catch up with former Orange Juice mainman and Helmsdale resident EDWYN COLLINS headlining the Grassroots stage, dragged you away.
With his five-piece band and his son William just finishing a song sung with him as I arrived, the support onstage and off for the Orange Juice maverick was excellent.
But at the heart of it, Edwyn’s voice is much stronger than when he last appeared at Belladrum in 2008, still in relatively early days after his brain haemorrhage and the long recovery.
Home Again from the self-titled album out in 2007 found me welling up a bit as it emphasised Edwyn’s voice sounding tremendous.
Older classics from Orange Juice days came next – the squelching bass riff of Rip It Up also gilded with a sax solo, Blue Boy – the track that Edwyn said in the Bella newspaper would be the Postcard Records song he’d choose to save from the waves [it's a borrowed Radio 4 Desert Island Discs radio programme final test!].
Then, forsaking his chair, Edwyn stood, using his stick to tap time and brandish, for Don’t Shilly Shally.
Trying to quieten everyone down for a moment in the song, a minor autocratic urge broke free.
“Shush! f***in’ hell!” he tutted, then felt guilty.
“Don’t swear!” he reprimanded himself, getting us laughing.
A great ending – if one had to come – was the pop mastery of solo hit A Girl Like You, built for a big number finish, the band rocking out – leaving the crowd begging for one more tune. In vain, sadly, as Bella rules dictate.
We had missed the fireworks, but when it’s for a performance that sets off its own for Edwyn fans, that’s more than OK.
Home of new music talent
Back at the newcomers end of the age-scale, 15-year-old CONNOR FYFE impressed in the SEEDLINGS tent with his intense presence, big voice and cover of Mumford & Sons’ Little Lion Man and his own looped song, set finisher Don’t, the title of his debut album.
Also impressing in the hotbed of new talent, performing Do The Katie-Step from their 2015 EP were JR GREEN, the brothers behind the unique folk-trad-indie sound from Lochaber – Strontian, to be precise. Playful, leftfield, impeccably traditional.
And there was the latest chance to catch THE JOSHUA HOTEL, Inverness electro-pop three-piece – only together 18 months, as frontman Josh Mackenzie told the busy crowd. Retro-styled, Josh and fellow guitarist Louis Slorach were elegant in cream with matching guitars (colour, anyway) and with a big sound and presence that already made you wonder how they had crammed themselves onto the compact Mad Hatters stage a couple of months ago for their debut city set.
The originally unnamed track with whistling is now called Don’t You Remember. The choice to close with was Let Me Go By the woozy “ballad” with hyper-romantic lyrics like “I spy two lost children swimming in the sky”.
The stage raising the roof (taking it off, actually…)
One of the most successful stages this year was the HOT HOUSE. No longer a tent, it is a space for many to sit and linger – where bands that turned in hugely exciting sets included KAWALA.
On Thursday with the sunny Afrobeat-folk vibe of their early songs like Do It Like You Do, and March’s debut album Better With You, Jim Higson claimed he was a terrible dancer, but the wobbly pelvis moves are mesmerising, and the clean harmonies he and Daniel McCarthy have evolved have an almost Simon & Garfunkel feel. They packed their stage with a young crowd (Check out the video interview with Kawala on the Inverness Courier website).
As did Thurso’s FORGETTING THE FUTURE earlier on on Thursday afternoon, after a slightly hair-raising journey from the far North that only just allowed them to make it in time. (See the video interview with them after their set on whatson-north.co.uk).
But their set had the attack and energy you’d expect from the hard-working Caithness band whose high-spots included Lepricon and Towers and a preview of Cigarettes which will be their next release.
They ended with last track Small Town Syndrome, beefy and addictive enough to end a set. It’s got bassist Max Paul singing harmonies with frontman Robbie – and after an accomplished stage dive from Robbie – out and back in less than a minute, thanks to an obliging bunch of fans.
A day later the second and 100 per cent ones-to-watch Caithness band NEON WALTZ hit the Hot House – with a little surprise saved till the end of the set.
But first there were three new songs packed in – fully justifying singer Jordan Shearer’s words: “Been busy this last two years!”
They toured late last year, but hinted on social media this Belladrum outing might have been the only time to catch them this year.
But what a reminder they gave their crowd about just how great their psychedelic pop songs can make you feel or the chutzpah they bring to their live performing – such as Heavy Heartless.
All In Good Time – who’s going to write the macabre musical round this wannabe theme? But at the end of the set, a familiar face appeared from the back of the stage, the band’s former keyboard-player Liam Whittles for a euphoric version of Dreamers.
Later GOODBYE MR MACKENZIE added frontman Martin Metcalfe’s full-on theatrics to a line-up almost intact from the 80s – apart from Garbage’s Shirley Manson, of course.
But another legend of those days, Big John (also ex-Exploited) is back on guitar. Dressed in black top hat and tailcoat decorated in magical symbols, singer Martin launched the band into an attacking Good Will City.
Beside me, the shining-eyed fan of a certain age was thrilled to see them in front of him and kept repeating in a baffled way “How did they never make it?”
His Master’s Voice led to Martin introducing the band “from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Bathgate, Dumfries and outside Inverness”. Also Kinlochbervie!
Then the whole scenario I had pictured – “Viagra waiting at the waterfall” – had to have a reboot.
It’s Niagara. But by then, Martin had removed the sunspecs to reveal a Bladerunneresque Pris-style black band of make-up sprayed across his eyes – another sinisterly good look.
Reluctantly heading off for the next band, I felt good to hear The Rattler again.
There was also a retro dip into joyful indulgence on Saturday on the stage when KYLE FALCONER played a set that tipped its hat to The View’s biggest hits – and the audience loved it.
So did Kyle, finishing Same Jeans teasing the fans.
“I was 28 last week …" he said knowing he'd never get away with it. The View fans probably know his age to the micro-second.
"No," he grinned. "It's 42, man!" Then ‘fessing up, he reassured himself: “Thirty-four is cool!”
It seems it is. He has never seemed more at peace with himself and delighted to be playing music –piano, guitar and ukulele – Tacky Tattoo to Something In The Way She Moves, back to The View’s How Long and on into A Face For Radio, Kyle back on guitar.
We sing back “You have a face for the radio!” and Kyle chuckles: “Cheeky b*****ds!"
It’s all going very well.
“Can you tell I’m happy – do I look p***ed off? No. Now I have kids and feel super-happy!” Kyle confided.
He asked for requests – predictably everyone yelled at once, so he just went his own way.
Walking away for the next band and the next venue, you heard him behind you launch some guests onstage into Shania Twain’s country classic You’re Still The One. Think there will probably be a few more surprising moves from Kyle before too much longer… (Hear the great interview he gave me, at whatson-north.co.uk later this week).
This year’s Belladrum seemed packed with precious moments, here’s a few of mine: hearing writer DAVID ALSTON talking about his book Slaves And Highlanders at the VERB GARDEN (missed the sofas!); meeting Cam Fraser formerly of The Cateran in his latest incarnation in BOULDER FIELDS, performing This House Will Hold at Moose Hollow; also at the Eagle Session Stage next to it, singer songwriter DYLAN TIERNEY performing The Lost War – his new album is coming soon (check out Inverness Courier’s Here & Now entertainment pages soon for more); catching Inverness band CHANCERS’ last couple of songs at the BELLA BAR, including tarot drama song Three Of Swords; PASSENGER loving his crowd’s great sungalong version of Let Her Go; the dance-off in my mind between the wobble-pelvised swing of KAWALA’s frontman Jim, Icelander DADI FREYR’s catwalk lope (not to mention big thumbs-up for his Loch Lomond into Scotland The Brave tribute!) and Eno Williams’ big moves with IBIBIO SOUND MACHINE; trying to decide which of TAMZENE’s songs was my set favourite, probably the timeless Accidentally Told You That I Loved You; baking in the midday sun on Friday, worth it to catch THE ROOV from Moray closing their set with classic good-time number You Wanna Be Like Me (catch my interview with them coming to whatson-north.co.uk later this week).
Each of us walks away with our own customised version of Belladrum, I hope yours was great.
True, there were the odd teething problems for this return – a broken water pipe (fixed) and the struggle to find enough staff for the bars, a problem different industries seem to be facing, post-Covid.
One man who wouldn’t have to be worrying about those things this year was Joe Gibbs, the man who started off this festival so many people have loved and planned into their lives, but who has now stepped back. I bumped into him heading off to see a band …
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More by this authorMargaret Chrystall