Well I’m not sure it really can be getting better and better but that felt like the best Belladrum yet. Two days of mostly glorious and almost entirely dry weather sure helped, of course, but the vibe felt particularly relaxed and joyful this year. For me, it’s almost entirely about the music but a huge part of Belladrum is naturally about hanging around with old friends in a great environment, drinking beer in the summer sunshine, and it was a great weekend for that.
With the expansion of the site in the last couple of years, it’s a little more difficult to catch everything you might want to see (the Hothouse Stage must be a quarter mile from the Free Range Folk Tent) so, understandably, people are more inclined to commit themselves to one stage and go with whatever comes up. Mostly this seems to work out well because the foot traffic around the site seems to only really get heavy around the Garden Stage now. I was a little sad, though, not to be able to catch more in the folk tent, which must be a good two hundred yards from The Potting Shed stage, the nearest other proper music stage. Paradoxically, the Grassroots Stage continues to suffer from noise intrusion – from the merchandise stalls nearby and from the Garden Stage – which pretty much spoilt Rachel Sermanni’s set, for example. For most acts I saw the sound was fine, but the delicacy of Rachel’s music was swamped by some thumping bass from outside. With most acts getting no more than forty minutes, there’s always been a proportion that miss out in some way, unlucky with the weather or with technical issues, or just ending up with a crowd much more intent on getting the craic than hearing the music. Fair play, almost every musician I’ve ever seen at Belladrum just gets on with the job, regardless, and hopes for the best.
So, the usual mix of Belladrum regulars, old favourites still going strong and happy surprises from people I’d never heard of made for two days of almost continuous musical magic. With the folk tent a little out of range, I spent most of my time either in the Grassroots Tent or hanging round The Potting Shed Stage. The hardcore “Potters” seem to increase by the year and there were plenty of folk hanging around there happily settled in for the entire weekend. Unlike the other stages, there’s space in the Potting Shed schedule for some open mic time, which is just what’s needed when there’s so many excellent musicians hanging around itching for a chance to do their thing. If it wasn’t for the “impromptu sessions” on Friday and Saturday night, I would never have heard the rather excellent Jon Paul Palombo. He had an official set in the folk tent but, being an energetic go-getting kind of guy, he turned up on the Potting Shed stage, played a couple of his very well-written busker/folk/pop songs and then gave the stage to some new friends he’d made on the way, Sienna, with their old-time songs and close harmonies. A guy standing next to me was grinning from ear to ear because he’d bought their album when he’d seen them busking, got them to sign it, and was just delighted to be getting the chance to hear them again.
Of all the many sets I heard over the weekend, the absolute best was from Radio 2’s current darling, Juan Zelada. I’ve quite enjoyed the tracks popping up on the radio, they sound fresh and in love with life. In the flesh, however, the man was a total revelation. A keyboard man himself, he comes over a little Jamie Cullum, a little Billy Joel, and absolutely overflowing with charm and energy. He had a decent sized band with him, including a horn section which, as I remember, amounted to a single trumpet, but there was such verve in the playing there could easily have been twenty guys on stage. With his music embracing blues, jazz and rock, the overall effect was to feel that this Spanish-born London resident had succeeded in re-inventing Ray Charles for the 21st century, and he was absolutely blooming marvellous.
From new familiar to old familiar…every year there’s some old pop/rock/whatever trooper who it’s an absolute joy to listen to, and this year that man was Roddy Frame. Warm, lovable, energetic and humorous, he gave us several old songs from the Aztec Camera era but I reckon the new songs sound even better, perfect compositions, perfectly performed that reminded me in some ways of Neil Finn and Crowded House’s best work. One band that astonished with music that was completely new to me was Fink. A friend had sent me one track which was enough to make sure I caught them and, my, that was something special. Fink the man apparently started in music making ambient techno, only recently gravitating towards music built around guitar, bass and drums. The sound that Fink (the band) makes is almost certainly like nothing you’ve ever heard. Complex, elegant, strongly rhythmic and with a dark thread that frequently made it sound like the soundtrack to a waking nightmare, this was incredibly compelling stuff, each band member making a melodic contribution to the darkly beautiful whole.
There was an incredible coup for the Potting Shed which, sadly, only partly came off: all of a sudden, there were Vintage Trouble, LA based soul/blues/rock masters who’ve been the big news of the last eighteen months (I admit it, I’d missed out on the buzz but everyone else was in awe…). Sadly, on-stage sound troubles caused them to give up after a couple of numbers, which was enough to hear why they’re so celebrated but also to be frustrated that they didn’t get the chance to do a full set. That singer of theirs can do old style soul music just beautifully, and he’s got the mutton chop sideburns to match. Otherwise, the Potting Shed had three great players pop up on multiple occasions: Gypsy Dave Smith brought his dobro and gave us a blues education that focussed on the great Ledbelly – plus a pretty inspired and surprising cover of The Eagles’ Desperado. Actually my favourite Gypsy Dave moment of the weekend was when he led an impromptu ensemble in a rousing version of Goodnight Irene. Inverness’ own Bruce MacGregor brought some feisty traditional music to the proceedings; he played a set with new young band The Elephant Sessions which was particularly memorable, just ridiculously exuberant, and then went on to rescue a dead spot that appeared when mechanical problems left Des Horsfall stuck at the side of the A9. If it wasn’t one of those two guys, then it was Isaac Sutherland taking time out from his two other jobs as sound man and drummer for every other band on stage. On the Saturday afternoon he picked up his guitar and, with the help of a couple of compadres on bass and drums, played a blistering set of electric blues and reggae. He was really going for it with his muscular singing but the feel of his blues guitar playing is really something else; he makes it look so easy he must have been born holding that guitar. Isaac and Gypsy Dave were there when Texan Tim Scott took the stage; he’s got some really good songs and I think he sounds best when there’s a bit of pedal to the metal going on, which is what happened here.
Of the myriad other acts to appear at the Potting Shed, it’s hard to pick highlights for fear of omitting others just as good. Country, blues, folk, pop and rock all got a look-in somewhere along the line, with a menu more eclectic than ever before. The four lasses that make up Dorec-a-Belle covered most of those bases with their unique line-up of cello, accordion, sax and guitar and a style that was unclassifiable. Their gentle harmonies were absolutely beautiful, very soothing, and when they got blues-y they played one song that sounded very close to I’d Rather Go Blind. Alan Frew showed just how captivating it can be to listen to one man playing his own songs, especially when he picks a guitar as nicely as Alan Frew does, and it was great to hear Red Hook Rapids sing songs from their new album, too. As a bonus they covered Gram Parsons’ Return of the Grievous Angel, the second Gram Parsons cover I heard this weekend. However, Johnny Cash remains the man everybody loves to cover and Ullapool’s own Federals did the best job of paying proper tribute to The Man In Black, with a really good fun set early on the Friday, setting the tone for what was to come.
Probably the band that really put a bomb under things on the Potting Shed stage was Lewis Hamilton and The Boogie Brothers, a blues rock trio in the classic mould from Auchterarder. I was mostly put in mind of Rory Gallagher, and in a genre that can too easily descend into laddish posturing, they sounded like the real deal. For me, it was great to hear Inverness’ Galipaygos back in action; there’s a unique style to their countrified songs about domestic realities and I just love them for it. A brisk set closed with them playing possibly the first tune they played as a band, Theme From The Galipaygos, a tongue-in-cheek instrumental in spaghetti western style – great fun. Flying the flag for alt country were The O’s, a duo from Dallas (Texas) who bristled with attitude – and talent. Covering Roger Miller’s Dang Me showed just what they were all about. Where the original version kind of seems ironically humorous, these guys sounded like they were hell-bent on oblivion at the end of a noose and didn’t give a damn. Between them, they played guitar, foot-drum, banjo and slide guitar, carrying everything before them on a wave of testosterone (emptying Rob Ellen’s hip flask along the way to keep themselves fuelled up) and disguising with attitude some exceptionally well-honed musicianship.
Meantime, over in the Grassroots tent, similarly eclectic programming presented a bewildering range of acts from the sweet country-style harmonies of Red Sky July to the cheerful mayhem wreaked by old favourites The Ballachulish Hellhounds (which has to be one of my favourite band names, ever). Apart from those already mentioned, there were four others who really stood out for me. I only managed to catch the very end of Ryan Keen’s set, but this lad from Devon impressed with his ability to hold a tension in his music, as delicate strums on his acoustic guitar, played with wide arm sweeps, completely held the attention of his audience. In fairly striking contrast, Slow Club were amongst several bands I saw that seemed to have grown up in the shadow of Arcade Fire. These guys were great musicians, swapping roles within the band as they built songs into little storms of intensity. There was a hint of Arcade Fire about The Smoke Fairies, too, with the way their songs built, but the core sound owed rather more to early seventies folk-influenced rock music. The two girls centre stage had beautiful voices with some high clarity coming through, reminiscent of Renaissance to me though the guy standing next to me murmured something about Jefferson Airplane. The beauty in the girls voices was nicely offset by a dark thread in some of their music, and, with two electric guitars and an amped-up fiddle alongside an excellent rhythm section, they made a splendid big noise. The guy that totally hooked me, though, was Willy Mason. I was only vaguely aware of his music but there were a few dozen people down front singing along to pretty much everything he played. He’s got a wonderful voice, expressing pain, empathy and puzzlement as he sings songs that philosophise, paint pictures in words, offer secular prayer for troubled times and sometimes hit the magic spot where pop music and real experience converge. He closed with one such song, Goodbye, clearly a favourite with his fans down at the front there and one that would be in the top ten Willie Nelson songs if it wasn’t, in fact, Willy Mason who wrote it.
So, there was a host of other stuff and I’m still buzzing from it. There’s a couple of busking spots between stages and, under a big mushroom half way to the walled garden, I found Aberdeenshire’s Brothers Reid, a rather fine band, playing a nice set that really needed amplification. It was there, too, that I heard Omar Afif playing his home-made gunbri (I think that’s what it was), a three stringed cigar-box guitar that made a hauntingly beautiful sound, like the very essence of the blues. Local player Joost played some beautifully delicate dobro underneath the meatier sound that Omar was making; sitting in the warm sunshine listening to the music these guys were making will stay with me for a long time. That was one cracking weekend, and possibly the best Belladrum yet for consistently good music, a total high for music nuts like me.
Johnpual Palombo and Ciena
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