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REVIEW: Woodzstock festival takes all weathers in a day of musical highlights

By Margaret Chrystall

THERE were a few moments on Saturday at Woodzstock when the phrase ‘chilly for June’ crossed your mind.

But as the crowd had coped quite happily with a fair bit of sunshine and a few rain showers, it didn’t seem to be a problem.

As usual, it seems that once you walk under the Woodzstock sign into the site, some kind of spell is cast for happy moods and big smiles.

And this year’s music choices did nothing to change that.

Getting the chance to see the return of a tweaked version of THE WHISKYS was just one reason to look forward to this year’s event. Much-missed as a regular presence on live stages in the Highlands since they split up over five years ago, the folk/rock line-up now includes Bruce ‘Blazin Fiddles’ MacGregor on violin, both Paul ‘Pel’ Elliott and Frazer McLean on electric guitar, Dickie Bills on drums, plus Steve Sinclair on bass and Kris Douglas out front and back delivering his signature gravelly vocal.

All of those sounds are welcome on some of the band’s classics – Live On A Wire, Open Your Eyes – Bruce’s fiddle emerging – and Take You There. Just three songs in and two girls were up dancing. Always smart with their covers choices, The Waifs’ Vermillion was one – Paul adding lovely wah-wah guitar, while another, Pearl Jam’s Indifference, was perfect for the Eddie Vedderesque quality of Kris’s voice. Looking down the line, there was a chance to remember previous band members who had played a part in The Whiskys’ story – fiddler Iain Duncan, drummer Andy Davidson, bassist Chris Ronaldson, Frazer McLean – now returned and his guitar playing an important part of the sound. As Paul said in an interview back in 2013, as he joined the line-up to fill the space left by Fraser at the time: “The band will keep evolving!”. Now they are back and that is certainly true on the evidence of their set at Woodzstock. They departed with the words: “See you soon somewhere!” and it’s good to know that is true again.

A mellow feel for the mid-afternoon main stage slot came with The BLACK ISLE PEAS, led by the charismatic husky vocals of Ebo McDowall, originally from Wick (later to appear in his rapper alter ego The Vandal, in a triumphant set). The Peas opened with What A Beautiful Day! by The Levellers making a greatdd start, the audience singing along without needing too much encouragement and Chris Rasdale’s sweet fiddle alongside cajon for beats and harmonica and Ebo’s guitar makes their sound a cross-genre triumph. “We’re a band that relies on you to sing!”, they said upfront. But with tracks such as the Old Crow Medicine Show’s Tell It To Me and message ‘Drink the corn liquor let the cocaine be’/Cocaine's gonna kill my honey bee’, it was a downhome feel the Peas made their own. Add in Aussie band Men At Work’s Down Under and a folked-up version of AC/DC’s A Whole Lotta Rosie, and they had made friends for life – and got people dancing.

Ashley & the Cosmonauts. Picture: Callum Mackay..
Ashley & the Cosmonauts. Picture: Callum Mackay..

Luckily ASHLEY & THE COSMONAUTS kept the vibe going at the main stage – Dickie Bills on drums, Robin Abbot on bass and Ben Hesling on guitar with vocals from Ashley Mackay, and a set full of eclectic treasures. “I’m expecting some singing along for this one!” Ashley instructed the crowd as it began to rain, and the ink began to run on my notes. And, frankly, how could we resist? The singer stretched out her voice to wrap convincingly and from the heart around Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, and the little break in her voice was perfect for The Cranberries’ Linger – echoing the unmistakeable catch that was a signature of the late Dolores O’Riordan’s voice. Maybe my favourite track though was Portishead’s, Ashley’s version raising the almost downplayed original of Give Me A Reason To Love You to an emotive triumph.

Meanwhile, between the Black Isle Peas and Ashley And The Cosmonauts, there was time to head over to the Liam Colgan Haybarn Stage – sponsored by the charity created in memory of the young Highlander who died in Germany – 16-year-old RHOEHAISSE CLARK, the winner of the John Preston Songwriter Award, was just finishing performing Half In Love, the song that had won it.

The lyrics paint a poignant picture of heartbreak: ”You changed my name in your phone, Replay all your words inside my head, Broken, broke my heart in two again, Half in love, cos I think that I’m half in love’.Though it was just the singer-songwriter’s second gig, afterwards she said: “I felt nervous, but once I start, I feel a different person.” Rhoehaisse has been invited back to play at the festival next year.

On at the Haybarn stage too was another young singer-songwriter, from the North East of Scotland but studying in Glasgow, AMY PAPIRANSKY. Her song Still was a great showcase for her reflective songwriting and offered a chance to appreciate Amy’s voice.

Forgetting the Future. Picture: Callum Mackay..
Forgetting the Future. Picture: Callum Mackay..

At the main stage, FORGETTING THE FUTURE from Thurso were being introduced by the day’s MC Ross Smith – who probably deserves a pat on the back for compiling a festival of flawless music choices that: combined introducing fresh, younger acts; celebrated in a number of line-ups the area’s own ‘Wrecking Crew’ of stalwart music talents [Derek Urquhart, Robin Abbot, Dickie Bills, Paul ’Pel’ Elliott, Bruce MacGregor]; and topped the evening slots with quality visiting artists.

Ross had said Forgetting’s The Future, would “crank it up a notch” – and he was right as the Caithness boys brought some rampaging indie rock to the stage, opening with the adrenalin charge of song Sara Tonin – frontman Robbie McNichol a powerhouse of bouncing energy – but equalled by drummer Connor Wilson, bassist Max Paul and guitarist Jamie Mackay, giving it everything, synchronised moves, the engine charge of unison singing which at times became intuitive harmonies. “It’s the first festival of the year for us,” Robbie informed us, and they certainly had the explosive power of a band released from the constraints of our Highland winter indoor life. On Inhaler – introduced by Robbie as their spaghetti western song, Robbie, Max and Jamie moved as one man lunging into the groove with their guitars and for anyone who has known the song for a while – it came out June 2020 – it’s kind of thrilling to see it being customised, updated, Robbie adding a lazy drawl to the style he sang it in for the festival crowd.

Forgetting the Future. Picture: Callum Mackay..
Forgetting the Future. Picture: Callum Mackay..

Lepricorn is another highlight of their set, starting with a call-to-dance “Woo-hoo-hoo!” intro, another storming track that took us finally to latest single Small Town Syndrome, an edgy, dangerously fast warning –“I can’t help but choose temptation”. And it looks like even the next generation get it about Forgetting The Future – a little boy going up at the end of the song to share his bag of sweeties with frontman Robbie. But the set was a reminder that this band is surely up there with the top Highland ones-to-watch line-ups right here, right now in June 2022. Doing everything right, making it look easy, constantly pushing themselves creatively and incredibly exciting to watch. Catch them if you can.

Sandi Thom. Picture: Callum Mackay..
Sandi Thom. Picture: Callum Mackay..

Luckily the contrast of SANDI THOM straight after really worked – it might have been a difficult transition after Forgetting The Future’s performance for some acts.

Sitting centre stage with her guitar, the Scottish singer-songwriter who has embraced many different genres in her career, headed deep into blues country for opening number Help Me, playing harmonica and singing a cappella. “Help me baby, I’m going to find somebody new!” she sang and one of the sweetest moments of the festival came when a tiny toddler made a beeline for her, heading for the stage where they put their hands flat on the monitor at the front and just gazed up into Sandi’s face as she sang. Looked like she found her somebody new! The set was a reminder of the Banff-born singer’s strong voice – the song she had co-written with folk legend Buffy Sainte-Marie The Big Ones Get Away one of the most intriguing, from Sandi’s album Flesh And Blood, also where her own Stormy Weather came from. A wild night when she said she was thrown out of a hotel in West Hollywood after bumping into the Scottish rugby team – “It became a little bit messy!” Sandi confessed – was celebrated with her song The Shape I’m In. “This is the first time I’ve played a live show in Scotland for four years – I came home in January for good,” the singer revealed. “And I thought this was the perfect place to start playing again back I Scotland!”

You wonder what it is like to have a song that is so huge it will always be your calling card, but perhaps at times might be something you’d like to leave behind to explore other kinds of music as your career develops. Sandi gracefully acknowledged the fact that lots of people in the audience were probably hoping to hear I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker With Flowers In My Hair. “I realise there is a call for a song about a punk rocker!” Sandi grinned as she introduced an earlier song. And sure enough the big hit came, Sandi saying she had written a new version of it. And, yes, it sounded as if no-one had forgotten the words or was shy about singing it – a nice welcome home for Sandi.

In the Haybarn, THE VANDAL set up. A deeply credible, charismatic hip hop presence I had the pleasure of interviewing him a few years ago. I had never seen him appear live before. And this first encounter revealed a fired-up tornado of energy ‘spitting’ like the hip hop master he is.

Here, the raw, husky voice – already met singing in the Black Isle Peas – powering up a posse of Caithness disciples at the front of the stage, who in turn ensured the whole crowd got moving – and delighted Ebo, who paid tribute at the end of each track. It was probably one of the most inspiring hip hop events I’ve been at. And I didn’t expect to find that in a haybarn in a beautiful rural setting.

The Complete Stone Roses. Picture: Callum Mackay..
The Complete Stone Roses. Picture: Callum Mackay..

Back at the main stage, THE COMPLETE STONE ROSES – always favourites for Inverness audiences – took us back to Manchester 1989 for I Wanna Be Adored, among a set that included the band’s huge classics of the Madchester era – She’s A Waterfall, Sally Cinnamon, I Am The Resurrection – impossible for the crowd not to get to the front of the stage and groove away, the tribute band’s ‘Ian Brown’ being a magnet for the eyes in his sunshine yellow top and shaking red maracas, channelling the real thing. And as a couple of people said, possibly slightly uncharitably but truthfully, singing more in tune live than the real thing sometimes has.

Many people had already rehearsed their hip hop moves to The Vandal by the time the main stage filled with the band who would top the night, GOLDIE LOOKIN CHAIN.

“You know it! It’s the GLC!” they helpfully informed the world.

Their tongue-in-cheek songs accompanied by stage-filling movement opened the set as they walked in time across it. “Keep making some noise till something happens!” they grinned at us. Crowd – only too happy to oblige. And classic I Like Drinking eased the night into the dusk, not that anyone really noticed, throwing themselves into the moves and singing along to cheeky GLC-signature cover Ice Ice D***o! MC

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