Those who have travelled here before know already; there’s no place quite like the Scottish Highlands in summer. The cool freshness of verdant woodlands abuts richly golden fields of barley, beneath the vivid blue and white of a sunny afternoon. Even when the misty grey rolls in from the north the atmosphere is evocative. It comes as no surprise then that the musical highlight of the Highlands’ calendar, Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival, is quite unlike any other festival in Scotland, or indeed the UK. While it has a reputation for being the annual “anything goes” blowout for young people in these parts the festival prides itself on its consistent programme of family-oriented music, entertainment and activities, and its coming-together spirit of communal celebration.
With around 20 stages running throughout the weekend Belladrum is the kind of festival you could easily get lost in. This year’s line-up represents a “something for everyone” approach to booking, with nearly all genres and styles of performance on display. From old favourites to up-and-comers, laidback listeners to dance floor bangers, artists from just down the road and around the world all add to the truly unique experience of this festival. Of course, it’s also the kind of festival you can just chill out at if you prefer; there’s yoga, massage, kids crafts, whisky tastings, film screenings, storytelling, poetry, workshops, comedy, a gin “palace”. There’s even wrestling. Wrestling is very popular! And there’s a designated Chill-out Tent for when you just need a good long moment to collect yourself. New for this year is Club Clan Bella – an exclusive VIP section of the festival with fancy loos, private bar and a giant teddy bear named Bella.
The theme for Belladrum this year is Bollywood – that specific strand of Indian cinema – and to go along with that there is the dedicated Bollydrum Bhangra Stage, featuring Bhangra DJs and live performances. Elephants are ubiquitous within the site, in artworks and costumes and street theatre, and the Bollywood Bar takes pride of place at the top of the main Garden Stage area. The festival is a sell-out this year, at a capacity of 20,000 each day, and with the local climate defying the forecast for showers and temperatures in the mid-teens, revellers can enjoy the extensive grounds in relative summery comfort, whether they’re camping on-site or just day-tripping from nearby Inverness and surrounds.
The opening night of the festival saw no fewer than 40 acts take to the various stages from the moment the main gates opened. With lengthy queues to get through security and into the campsite (some punters reported waiting in line for 2 hours or more) it was positive to still see such a good turn out early on. Entrance to the Garden Stage required an additional ticket on Thursday and some folk didn’t bother. The main arena was lively enough with the Grassroots Stage offering up a fine array of folk and trad music. Belladrum regulars Hoodja were one act to get the crowd buzzing, eliciting all the usual whoops and hollers with each change of phrase. Over at the Ice-House Bar, the emphasis was heavily on brass. Jazz, blues and swing ensembles played upbeat covers of classic and modern pop songs while the crowds boogied on and off the earthen dance floor.
Those who had paid the extra for Garden Stage access were treated to 4 acts as diverse as the entire festival line-up. Brass Gumbo kicked things off with their own funky take on the brass ensemble concept, followed up by UK country darlings Ward Thomas. The twin sisters put as much energy into connecting with their audience between songs as they did into performing for them, at one point sparking up a chat with a pair of twins spotted in the front row. Their set featured many new songs from their forthcoming album Restless Minds as well as earlier hits like Guilty Flowers and Cartwheels. In stark contrast, New York 3-piece Fun Lovin’ Criminals took to the stage oozing charm and swagger. Singer and guitarist Huey Morgan was affable and appeared to be enjoying the performance immensely, complimenting the band on how tight they were sounding. It was justified; the drums were cracking with precision and the bass was rolling. From the opening of The Fun Lovin’ Criminal through Smoke ‘Em and Scooby Snacks, the atmosphere was coolly electric.
Closing out the Garden Stage on Thursday night with a steady stream of hits was Amy Macdonald. As ever she delighted in playing to a home crowd, and was suitably nostalgic about her past Belladrum experiences, having first played the festival in 2007 before her debut album was released. Mr Rock& Roll lets rip with streamer canons early on and the musical trajectory is set skywards from there. Run, This Is The Life and Life In A Beautiful Light lead to a naturally euphoric close to the first night’s proceedings with an encore of Down By The Water and Start A Band launching an almighty cloud of paper confetti over the mildly damp crowd. A light but persistent drizzle couldn’t dampen spirits and many carried on drinking, dancing and especially singing well into the wee hours. Back at the Grassroots Stage Rhythm N Reel served up a hefty mix of trad covers and dance tunes that bled into the campsite, so even the weary could squeeze every last ounce of music out of the night.
For many in the campsite, their nocturnal activities rendered them somewhat incapacitated well into the late morning/early afternoon. For the early birds, however, mainly those with effervescent young children, there were tasty morsels on offer. Musical highlights of the afternoon included Aberdeen quartet The Little Kicks getting sweaty at the Hothouse Stage, Stirling songwriter Norrie McCulloch playing first on the Trailer Trash stage and later at the Potting Shed, and Zoe Graham flying solo on the Seedlings Stage. The always impressive Miracle Glass Company produced an ambitiously suave but all too brief psychedelic jam for an awed gathering at the Hothouse. Showcasing new songs from their as yet unreleased second LP, MGC showed exactly why they’ve grown a reputation as one of the best live bands in the country; a must-see on any festival line-up.
On the matter of new music, Folda released their beautiful debut EP Lust on July 23rd and played only their first-ever headline show within the week. Their dreamy electro-pop songs perfectly matched the dark warmth of the Seedlings Stage and could have done justice to a later-than-5pm slot, perhaps nearer dusk. Equally so Pumarosa, across at the Hothouse, drew the crowd so deeply into their ambient rock universe that the outside world seemed to dissolve for a period.
The Grassroots Stage continued to deliver some of the finest songwriting and musicianship on the bill. Adam Holmes and the Embers’ latest album Midnight Milk was recently longlisted for Scottish Album of the Year – his third nomination from as many releases. Surprisingly his set primarily focused on songs from his first two albums, though this may have been due to the constraints of a festival setup or availability of his usual band members. Musically it all flows together nicely and Adam is welcomed like the prodigal son. His dry humour is endearing and razor-sharp, as he dedicates a song about day drinking to his 6-month old daughter. Is he joking? Is he serious? It’s impossible to know for sure, so deadpan is his delivery.
Way over yonder at the Free Range Folk Stage another local favourite plucked a devoted crowd out of the masses. Moteh Parrott’s distinctive guitar playing and vocal came as a breath of fresh air in an otherwise steamy evening’s hectic schedule. The gifted songwriter has a natural easiness in front of an audience that belies his youthfulness.
For anyone parked at the Garden Stage for the duration, Friday’s was a delectable selection of musical treats; Edinburgh’s funk and soul ensemble The Kate brought their hugely successful Stevie Wonder show out into the open air. There was abundant dancing and singing along in the early afternoon sunshine. The spirited folk-pop of Tide Lines resonated deeply from the foot of Belladrum’s giant amphitheatre and their irresistible stomping beat consumed the crowd. As anthemic as all their songs are, their cover of Walk the Moon’s Shut Up And Dance proves a brilliantly buoyant festival favourite every time.
The feel-good vibes carried over for The Charlatans set, not that they couldn’t generate enough of their own buzz. Tim Burgess’ smile, bleached mop and boundless stage energy somehow absorbed every joy from the crowd, amplified it tenfold and projected right back over the audience. The band looked to be having a good time too. Things proved not so easy for Paloma Faith who had ongoing technical issues that resulted in her vocal fading out early in the set and, at least for the diehard fans at the front, it remained absent from the mix for almost 3 full songs before sort of being resolved. To her credit Faith carried on and never missed a note despite suffering early cold symptoms. If anything she worked extra hard to recover her hard-earned headliner title.
Meanwhile, at the Grassroots Stage, Boston’s Darlingside were making America great again (or at least reminding people what’s so great about America). Their immaculately crafted folk songs delivered with impeccable 4-part harmonies in the mould of CSNY huddled around a single microphone, were the purest sounds heard all weekend. Having set an impossibly high standard to follow, the challenge then fell on English alt-folk singer-songwriter Beth Orton to follow with something equally magical. With a vast catalogue of music to draw on Orton captivated her audience early on with just voice and acoustic guitar. It was a more subdued headline set than anywhere else on Friday night and that made it extra special.
One more “best bit” from Friday, possibly THE best bit of the entire festival, came out of the Venus Flytrap Palais; Tragedy: All Metal Tribute to The Bee Gees & Beyond was uproarious, shocking, sweaty, and so much fun! A truly unexpected delight and definitely deserving of a long lie-in on Saturday morning.
If Belladrum had sold out its 20,000 tickets then Saturday was definitely the day all 20,000 came through the gate; the site was heaving! Many fresh-faced daytrippers embraced the Bollywood theme, arriving in beautifully colourful saris. It was another day of contrasts and variety in the musical offerings to please the vast demographics of the Belladrum audience. Everything from good old-fashioned rock & roll, country, bluegrass, jazz and blues, indie, rap, pop and folk, to whatever you call Colonel Mustard & the Dijon 5.
The Sea Atlas aka Calum Buchanan, from the Isle of Lewis, writes angsty guitar-driven psychedelic folk songs. Often playing with a full band he struck out on his own for a set on the Seedlings Stage just after lunch. The power in his voice, coarse like Eddie Vedder, can sometimes overwhelm even the fuzziest guitar but it’s so effective at delivering emotion that you don’t mind being slightly knocked sideways by it. At the opposite end of the sonic spectrum sits Siobhan Wilson, another Scottish Album of the Year contender for her work There Are No Saints. Accompanied by cello and guitar, and occasionally taking to the piano herself, you’d be hard-pressed to find a purer voice in all the highlands, yet her grungy side comes out too on set closer Whatever Helps.
Proving that live music can be both laid back and engaging, technical, personable, and still thoroughly entertaining, Martin Harley’s soulful blues songs pulled punters in from every side of the Grassroots Stage. He talked calmly about songwriting and storytelling and, having opened the floor up to questions, described in detail the origins of his particular guitar (a Weissenborn made of Hawaiian koa). If anyone was still seeking a place to relax into Saturday afternoon, this was it. Facing down the frenetic pop-rock of Edinburgh’s Retro Video Club at the Seedlings Stage was not the place to be. However, if you were seeking some upbeat danceable songs to sing along to with your mates all summer long you would have been in good company here.
Away at the Ice-House Bar were Mezcla, a highly recommended jazz outfit who did not disappoint on the promise of highly skilled players and talented composers. While they amazed and inspired awe on one of the smallest stages at the site the largest crowd of the festival had assembled before the Garden Stage for acoustic popster Gerry Cinnamon.
Over at the Grassroots Stage, The Wandering Hearts lulled the crowd with their unique strain of English-tinged Americana and folk. Beyond this, Austin 5-piece Whiskey Shivers delivered a rousing set of high-energy bluegrass and folk-punk tunes, leading very nicely into You Me At Six’s Garden Stage slot. Similar to Paloma Faith the night before, YMAS suffered a briefly catastrophic power failure that resulted in nothing but live drums echoing across the arena for a good 15 to 20 seconds. They had no idea and played through it, apologising after the fact despite the situation being beyond their control.
Back over at the Hothouse things were really warming up. Malian outfit Songhoy Blues provided one of the most exciting performances of the festival, elevating blues-rock fusion to an all-time high. On the groovy Sahara from last year’s Résistance they had the crowd singing along and bouncing with total abandon. When the set reached its climax on Soubour the highland audience was completely under the spell of the desert music and the band, feeling all the love, came straight out to meet their new friends and fans face to face.
Rosanne Cash may be the only Grammy winner on this year’s line-up but you wouldn’t know it from the reserved manner in which she performs. Accompanied by John Leventhal on guitar and harmonies, she weaves stories and songs seamlessly into her narrative and builds a cool rapport with her audience along the way, so that everyone becomes fully invested in her performance. It’s magic to witness.
Legendary Scottish rockers Primal Scream filled the final slot at the Garden Stage on Saturday night, setting the mood to party right from the off with Movin’ On Up. They didn’t deviate much from the classic rock line and the audience seemed to appreciate it, at the end of a long 3 days of partying where they just wanted to have a good time. Loaded, Country Girl and Rocks accelerate the night towards oblivion. What could be a more appropriate end to the festivities? Oh yeah, fireworks!
It wasn’t actually over at this point; Broken Records had the honour of playing out the Seedlings Stage with bold and anthemic indie rock, layered with affluent guitars and essential fiddle, and Jamie Sutherland’s potent melodies and lyrics. While the festival is still hours away from silent planning is well and truly underway to make next year another wholly unique festival experience in the highlands.