Tartan Heart keeps beating

For the festival season, the difference between success and failure is increasingly difficult to find.

Events across the country are struggling, with many familiar names disappearing by the wayside. Yet in the North of Scotland the humble of confines of Belladrum are providing a home to a real festival success story.

Arriving on site, it’s easy to see the attractions of the event. Well situated and with a dramatic setting Belladrum offers the perfect Highland break for those with a thirst for new music. PAWS and Bronto Skylift –two groups with a local connection – open Friday, before the Main Stage really gets into its groove with a set from Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed. The American is steeped in the language of soul, and fans are Belladrum are treated to a gutsy performance. Sure, the reference points are easy to spot – the wailing screams are sheer James Brown, for example – but when it’s delivered with such passion all reservations are set to one side.
The Phantom Band take to the stage following almost a year on the road. Second album ‘The Wants’ didn’t get the exposure it deserved, and the material really gains an extra dimension in a live setting. Perhaps it is the added muscle that a full blown PA can bring, or perhaps it was the sausages prepared for them by the drummer’s gran –we may never know...

A walk around the site reveals a mixed crowd, with families mingling amongst teenagers attending their first event. The first aid staff seem relaxed to the point of boredom, while the various foods – both local and exotic – tempt passers-by. Growing year on year, the Heilin Fields is a place to sit and reflect. A sort of Highland view of what Glastonbury should be, the area has become almost a festival in itself. A conceptual artist has dug holes for a series of grand pianos, arranged into hilariously surreal patterns.

Back at the Hot House Stage, Echo & The Bunnymen play a blistering greatest hits set. The Liverpool band are in prime form, with Ian MacCulloch having the air of a retired football casual. Smoking throughout, it is never clear if the stage is submerged in dry ice or nicotine. Whatever, a climactic run through ‘The Cutter’ is enough to pleased the most cynical ticket holders.

As night draws in, the dance arenas come alive with some intriguing sounds on display. Very much a hidden genre, techno-folk seems to make itself known as young producers begin to disrupt the traditions they are born into. Edinburgh’s Unicorn Kid plays an inventive set, before a headphone disco winds down the opening night.

Saturday opens with a cloudless sky and the tempting offer of porridge from the Loch Fyne stall. Local produce really comes to the fore at Belladrum, with part of its success surely owing to the free-flowing mixture of the familiar and the unknown. A wander round the far flung acoustic stages allows the previous night’s hedonism to drip away, before We Were Promised Jetpacks arrive on the Garden Stage. Very much an underground fixture in Scotland, the band gather a large crowd for what becomes a preview of their second album. The riffs sound bigger than before, as the Edinburgh band adjust to larger venues and bulkier expectations.

A suitably rocking set commences before stumbling on the path of the Raghu Dixit Project. A real find, this Indian group contain some of the finest musicians seen at Belladrum all weekend. Humble to the extreme, their songwriting sits somewhere between classic rock and the Indian devotional music known as Qawwali. The only fault in their set is that it doesn’t last long enough, with the Hot House Stage filling up with more and more curious fans.

Evergreen Scottish group Deacon Blue are tasked with closing the festival, but perhaps a more low key option is to watch Roddy Woomble. Now in full blown acoustic mode, the one time Idlewild singer is every inch the country dweller. Rattling through his recent solo album, the songwriter is on relaxed form. Backed by a stunning ensemble, Woomble occasionally departs to the side of the stage to soak up the music.

Throwing in a re-working of ‘You Held The World In Your Arms’ the singer is perhaps referencing Idlewild’s notorious 2008 appearance at Belladrum – when more people crowded into one tent than appeared to be enjoying the main stage!

Ending with the traditional fireworks display, Belladrum has managed to thrive where other festivals have fallen away. The Scottish summer season has rarely been shorter, but the Tartan Heart manages to attract fans from far and wide. It’s locality is to its benefit, yet the event is never shortsighted. Challenging itself without losing its core identity, Belladrum looks to be a template other festivals could well follow.

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