This year’s Tartan Heart Festival at Belladrum Estate boasted it’s usual eclectic mix of some of the UK best-loved bands and they played their part of that there is no doubt, but for me it was the wealth of local talent on offer which made this year’s festival so special.
Sure Travis, The Wombats, special guests Kassidy, The South, Vintage Trouble, The Buzzcocks, Foy Vance, We Are Scientists and Frightened Rabbit produced special performances, but if you looked a little further afield than the Garden Stage this year you would have discovered, like we did, some real gems.
It was the first three-day camp for us at Belladrum and given the busy schedule of bands we wanted to catch we plumped for the quiet campsite. Must be getting old!
After the obligatory bacon roll and coffee to wash away the Thursday night excesses it was time to make our way to the Garden Stage to see James Mackenzie.
The Inverness singer/songwriter was joined on stage by former Aquascene members Caroline Truslove and Ruairidh Duncan, Blazin Fiddles’ Bruce MacGregor, Calum Martin and the now almost ever-present Chris Gorman. As the sun lit up the Garden Stage, James and his band did likewise and drifted beautifully through his glorious and ever-growing back catalogue of tunes including new single There’s Something I’m Not Telling You and Comfortable. Keep an eye on James’ progress over the coming year as his star continues to rise within and outwith the Highlands.
Sticking with the Garden Stage next up was the Red Kites and the mesmerizing voice of their Invernesian frontman Moteh Parrot. This band is developing a much deserved following after the release of their sensational EP, Beat In Time. After treating a sizeable crowd to EP tracks Hold Fast, The Artist and Peace of Mind, the song everyone had come to see – Beat In Time – was delivered with poignancy and emotion. The track is a beautiful tribute to Moteh’s late brother Lawrence who tragically died in 2009. I’m sure we weren’t the only ones in the crowd holding back a tear or three as the song danced delicately over the appreciative audience.
Clashes are an inevitable hazard of a festival and as such we were only able to rush and catch the final song by local indie band City in Surveillance on the GoNorth Seedlings Stage. However, I am reliably informed that they acquitted themselves admirably.
The next act on the list was one of the Highland capital’s most promising young singer/songwriters, the astoundingly talented Megan Blyth. But prior to Megan’s appearance on the Seedlings Stage there was time to check out Fife indie/dance outfit The Draymin, who had previously impressed at Rockness earlier this year. This time frontman Fraz Penman’s voice was in top form, unlike at Rockness where he had been struck down the lurgee just hours before taking to the stage. One to watch with instantly memorable tracks such as Heart Attack and the magnificent Hold Your Position.
So to the Seedlings Stage to see Megan Blyth. The 16-year-old produced another faultless display in front of a large and appreciative crowd. With one EP already under her belt and another on the way Megan treated the Seedlings Stage to a handful of her self penned songs, including the sensational Clueless, A Million Miles and Fading Away, a song of real maturity which echoes her heroine PJ Harvey.
So to the Garden Stage to discover who indeed would be the Bella “Special Guests.” The smart money prior to the event was that Kassidy would be making a return to the festival they triumphed at last year in the Hothouse Stage. And so it came to pass at 1830, as promised, the Glasgow based outfit took to the stage to tumultuous applause and ripped into hit after hit from both their albums to date, Hope Street and One Man Army.
It had been a long and alcohol fuelled Friday and it would have been rude not to have sampled the many watering holes Bella has to offer, including the Black Isle Brewery and their wonderful wares. But there was one more local act to see before calling it a day, Rachel Sermanni on the Grassroots Stage.
The Carrbridge singer/songwriter is unquestionably one of the most successful Highland exports in recent times and her experience at many high-profile gigs over the past year has added to her growing maturity on stage. Rachel wowed the Grassroots stage with a charming, cleverly crafted and delicate set and sent us floating off to the campsite with a warm glow in our hearts to match our livers!
Saturday, and the sun continued to shine down on the eternally grateful crowd, who had suffered one of the worst summers in recent years.
First up for us on Saturday was one of the highlights of Bella 2012, a faultless set from Inverness 5-piece, the Whisky River Band, whose growing reputation continues to attract interest from afar, not to mention the 18,000 YouTube hits their Nut Productions produced video for album track No Regrets received in just 24 hours prior to their Belladrum set.
This incredible achievement both pleased and worried frontman Kris Douglas, who admitted he’d never been more nervous than he was prior to their Saturday appearance in front of a packed tent on the Grassroots Stage. But if there were nerves you would have been hard pushed to tell as they launched into album (The Taming of Me) opener Dark Cloud. This was no ordinary performance from the Whiskys this was an M&S performance with each member of the band producing some wonderful moments of individual brilliance and ad-lib extras. But never once did this result in them losing their togetherness as a band. Their set was very much an all for one and one for all performance.
It’s hard to describe in words the fun-filled madness we then witnessed on the Seedlings Stage with the arrival of Toby Michaels’ Rolling Damned, featuring Toby himself, former Stolen Order guitarist Jonny Ga$h, KOBI’s Gary Thain and Steve Robertson and Calum Martin on drums. It’s time to step into the weird and wonderful world of Toby Michaels. His refreshing eccentricity and on stage presence brings with it one word – fun – like the variety brought to the world by Toby’s beloved favourites Tenacious D. He opens with a brilliant acoustic version of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell before launching into a collection of his own self penned rock epics, such as current single Save Me. But it’s during Love Money which left the packed tent in awe. Here Toby decides (unknown to his band prior to the gig) to leave the stage and run out of the tent, but still singing as he danced his way a full 200 yards away His bewildered band remained onstage and continued to play as Toby continued to belt out the lyrics from the Red Bull bar! It was a classic moment of rock n roll exuberance and one which went down well with the open-mouthed crowd. The set closer was the shamelessly titled A Little Bit of What You Fancy, during which Toby decided to thrust his mic in my face and demanded I sing the end of the chorus, at which point I recall grunting something suitably incoherent, but it seemed to work and ensured a memorable end to a blistering set.
There was only going to be one local band who could possibly follow such a set and that band was Iain McLaughlin and the Outsiders, whose reputation and musical talent had won them a place on the coveted Hothouse Stage. I have to admit being a bit Outsiders daft but then anyone who has heard their debut album We Are All Outsiders would forgive me. This was a set and a stage made for Iain, Paul Elliott, Dave Ramsay and Russell Montgomery and they grabbed the opportunity with both hands. From the powerful and intense opener Rapid Eye Movement to the rock fuelled energy of Remedy (during which I admit getting a little carried away in the screaming along department) this was a set full of heart, intensity, power and tenderness. The beauty of album slow burner Breathe captured that tenderness exquisitely. Without doubt this was another of our Belladrum highlights and those who witnessed their impeccable set were the lucky ones.
It was then time to take our first trip over to the Hen Stage in Belladrum’s famous Walled Garden to catch local singer/songwriters Barry Mackay and Ryan Golder (former The Side bassist) perform. Barry treated the Hen Stage to a number of his own tracks including I Shouldn’t Be Drinking (just what I was thinking!), Little Ray of Sunshine and a beautiful track he’d written for his wife Rachel, entitled Call My Name. He also squeezed in the Oasis-esque I Can’t See (a track he wrote during his time with Inverness band Sneaky Castro), which also included the now famous medley from Ryan Golder, which features everything from No Woman No Cry, Don’t Look Back In Anger and The One and Only to Barbie Girl and Eminem’s Not Afraid and bizarrely the Inspector Gadget theme tune! All these tracks are cleverly woven together and arrive back at the chorus of Barry’s I Can’t See. A must see if you haven’t already. They will be playing at a venue near you again soon. The set closed with Ryan Golder’s very own Forever Criminal, a poignant description of a woman who once had the world at her feet before drugs took control of her life.
Another typically busy day of bands and booze was beginning to take its toll again and it was time to head back to the tent grab a bite to eat and seat before the main event, Travis closing the Garden Stage.
Now the fact that I met my fiancée Suzette at a Travis gig back in 1999 probably added to the magic on the night, but the boys from Glasgow didn’t disappoint the massive crowd who’d turned up to see them play their only Scottish date this year. They reeled off hit after hit including All I Want To Do Is Rock, Turn, Something Anything, Side and Driftwood before closing with arguably their most famous and biggest hit, Why Does It Always Rain On Me. And unfortunately that song did eventually encourage the rain in the wee small hours but not before Travis gave Belladrum a five-star performance which ended in shower of magnificent fireworks and men on bag-pipes atop a massive crane.
In my humble opinion this year’s festival was one of the best Bella’s ever, but not just for the household names, this was almost certainly the year of the underdogs who you can expect to start biting at the heels of the A&R men very soon indeed, if indeed some haven’t already.
On a final note I have only three regrets this year (if you don’t include over indulging in that list!). 1. That I didn’t manage to catch the much heralded return of Roadway. 2. That I failed to make it to see Graham Brown’s Sienna Lights and 3. That up and coming Inverness indie band The Oxides were just too late to make the billing for this year’s festival, but they do play the Ironworks Summer Showcase with Roadway and Toby Michaels on 30 August so that one’s not to be missed.