Five top picks from across this year's XpoNorth festival – including Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Ian Hunter, Glasgow singer/songwriter Scarlett Randle, a world premiere of a North Coast 500 documentary, and more
This year’s XpoNorth was the typical manic affair – it was difficult to know where to start with it! With gigs, seminars and workshops happening across Eden Court and the wider Inverness, there was something for everybody last Wednesday and Thursday – and a lot to talk about. Here then are five of the events most worth highlighting and discussing from across the creative industries showcase.
Stay tuned for Margaret Chrystall's guide to this year's XpoNorth!
BROKEN Chanter maestro David MacGregor has a slightly uncharitable description of his set he delivers halfway through his Xpo gig – “s*** chat, good songs.”
It does his chat a disservice – the singer-songwriter is as engaging as he has been ever since Scotland was first introduced to him as the frontman of Kid Canaveral.
But when it comes to the songs, he’s bang on the money – Broken Chanter’s Wednesday night show offered a collection of bright, breezy folk-tinged indie-pop songs with a groove to them.
Opener Wholesale is sunny and hooky – the sunshine peeking through every chord played, every note sang.
And the sunshine continues, even as the songs get wistful. Don’t Move to Denmark is underscored by synth lines and electric drumpads, but David’s voice – all warmth and wistfulness– keeps the song breezy in its own way.
EDINBURGH synthpop duo Chuchoter’s name comes from the French word for whispers – but there was nothing quiet about this band.
The group’s Ironworks set on the Thursday night was a half-hour exercise in excellent, emotive electro-pop – wrapping the unapologetic, cutting lyrics around a jagged, sawtoothed production stuffed with hooks.
Frontwoman Emily Smith’s voice is perfect for this – it’s powerful, poppy with a rasping and raw edge to it that lets the lyrics of songs like U Can Find, Pieces and Gentleman – introduced, wryly, as being about “again, how I don’t like boys” – land with the force of a haymaker.
It gives words like “I’ll tear you to pieces, I’ll raze you to the ground” an extra, brilliantly insidious venom to them.
And the production, by Owen McAllister, adds to it. Propulsive, ragged and eminently dancable, the skipping synthlines provide the perfect background for the band’s overall pop sermon.
By the time the cool synthwave of set-closer Gorilla – my notes for this song literally consist of the words “legitimate bop”, for what it’s worth – had finished, there was no way anybody would be whispering about Chuchoter. They’d be shouting about this band from the rooftops.
DISCOVER SCOTLAND: NORTH COAST 500
Old High St Stephen’s Church Halll
AS a showreel for the rolling Highland hills, young film-maker Sean Grieve’s debut documentary Discover Scotland: North Coast 500 is a triumph.
Long overhead shots drink in the scenery, as documentary presenter Malcolm Jamieson barrels along the roads, tracks and tarmacs that wrap around the coastlines of this region.
And as a 90-minute advertisement for prospective tourists, it is also a triumph – its glancing looks at the history of the region’s various counties combine with those stunning scenery shots to whet the appetite of anybody not familiar with it.
As a documentary receiving its world premiere in the heart of the Highlands however, it is perhaps less engaging. The film never really immerses us in the history or scenery of the region, nor does it ever examine the North Coast 500 as a phenomenom.
There are a lot of well-documented concerns that surround the North Coast 500 for the communities this documentary visits regarding its sustainability– concerns that this film doesn’t touch.
Its roadtrip framing device ends up being an apt allegory for the film itself – we see a lot of the Highlands whirl past the car window, without any opportunity to properly immerse ourselves.
IAN HUNTER: IN CONVERSATION
A LIFE lived in miniatures never seemed bigger when Ian Hunter came to XpoNorth.
Giving a keynote presentation on his work in Hollywood special effects, the Oscar-winning supervisor behind practical effects scenes in films including The Dark Knight and First Man had a local connection – his father was from Troon originally.
And Ian was a warm, witty and educating presence in Eden Court’s Playhouse Cinema.
Talking the audience through the formation of special effects would, one could imagine, strip the magic from them.
Yet in the way that Ian discussed the painstaking work and engineering that went into, for example, creating the Batmobile crashing into a garbage truck – the weeks spent building miniatures, engines, and working out the almost-impossible physics of the situation – brought the magic more to life.
And a runthrough of the work of First Man proved that anything was possible.
The Penta Hotel
BESUITED, beguiling and utterly, delightfully bonkers, Scarlett Randle owned every inch of the Penta’s makeshift stage.
Swaggering on and launching straight into a joyful, unironic cover of Abba classic Dancing Queen set the tone – this was a set that would make no apologies for itself.
And Scarlett – androgynous in an open suit-jacket – was the perfect pop ringleader for this eccentric, excellent half hour of sublime pop music.
Falling – a minimalist, delightful bit of pop music – is introduced with a story about a break-up, and Scarlett’s grandmother’s being convinced that her ex had stolen her salad servers.
Here is quiet pop perfection, the words “you could break my heart, I would take that willingly knowing you’re in love with me,” soaring over sparse synths and guitar.
And Berlin – an achingly beautiful and bitter break-up ballad – simply floated.
Introduced as her debut single – “which is French for debut,” as Scarlett notes – its acoustic fifths quietly work their way into the brain as the singer-songwriter smiled and grimaced her way through line after line of confused heartbreak.