Roots, shoots and all things Americana at Belladrum, 2010
Ah, It felt like coming home; just driving onto site filled me with anticipation for two days of fun, friends old and new, and lots of music. Do people everywhere love their music as much as Highland folk? It’s just brilliant how much enthusiasm there is for everything, but especially for music you can dance to and songs you can sing along with – whether that’s Amy MacDonald triumphantly belting out ‘This is the Life’ on the main stage or a scratch band delivering a fond version of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ over at The Potting Shed. Belladrum’s a really smiley festival, especially when the weather holds as well as it did this weekend.
So, what caught the ear and put a smile on my face? Well, first of all, there was the return of two local bands with Americana roots. The Galipaygos played the main stage early on Friday; they played there at the first or second Belladrum but the career path has stuttered a bit since then, though there is a recent new album. Anyway, boy were they up for it. They’ve got a great knack for melody and hooks, and there’s a homely charm at the base of it all but on Friday this was all married to some real verve and power – they were blessed with really good sound – and their set was a blast.
Then, on Saturday, the return of the Lush Rollers on the Grassroots Stage. Definitely one of the finest country rock bands from Scotland – and for that matter, well above a lot of American outfits you may have heard of – it was like they’d never been away. Again, they have a fantastic knack for melody, but in their own realxed way they can really deliver some power, too. That’s one fantastic drummer, they’ve got there, putting in so much energy and commitment. Best of all, though, is their absolute togetherness, tight as tight can be whilst making it look like the easiest thing in the world. There were old favourites and some new songs (hooray!), with the new songs sounding as good as the old. If they’d played a double set, I’d still have been there at the end.
Some of 2009’s conquering heroes returned to pull off the trick again; Joe Cassady and the West End Sound came over from New York and knocked ’em dead in the Grassroots tent. They make a brilliant sound, really energetic and exciting, a classic rock band with a star guitarist who plays with a smile on his face; when he launches into his solos he announces himself with a relaxed slide along the fretboard before building up the fireworks as everybody’s jaw drops in awe. The mystery is that they don’t manage to pull it off on record where it all sounds a bit flat, but maybe this next time it’ll all come together in the studio, too.
Lynsey Dolan, too, returned from Aryshire to play the bigger stage at Grassroots. She has got one hell of a voice – it’s compulsory to mention Janis Joplin at this point – and is a superb performer to boot. She gives it everything whilst being in total control. You might not know all the songs but it feels like you do and the emotional intensity in her voice sure blasts the cobwebs away. She pulls off the sexiest moves whilst she’s doing it, too, possibly the most sinuous big girl I’ve ever seen. Not a bad band, either. When they played a returning hero set at the Potting Shed later on Saturday, folk didn’t want to let them go.
The Ballachulish Hellhounds, Scotland’s own cowboys from outlaw country, were full value again; cowboy and western songs that you didn’t realise you knew played with precision, speed and incredible good humour. To close up Saturday night hearing them play Hank Williams’ ‘I Saw The Light’ ( more like, ‘I saw the white lightning’ as Gypsy Dave Smith once said ) was just perfect.
So, where to go next? The Square Wheels Potting Shed Stage (presented by Rob Ellen of The Medicine Show) is the place not to stray too far from if you’re looking for original roots music. There’s usually an unlikely mix of American troubadours and local talent – could be anything from rock’n’roll revivalists (take a bow, The Hurricanes) all the way through country and folk (from both sides of the Atlantic) to some good old fashioned blues. Timetabling is always a bit last minute, which is my excuse for having missed some good stuff, but some people I did catch really stood out. Michael Weston King is an unsung hero, such a good performer and a good songwriter to boot. This weekend he mostly did a batch of anti-war songs from his most recent album. As he said, sadly the validity of the protest is still with us. It was a great pleasure to catch Cousti; Matt Morrow is just one of the nicest guitarists to listen to and to hear him with his bandmates for the first time was great. It was a set that just got better as they really got into it, really soulful and engrossing. Dave Desmelik from North Carolina was sadcore country personified; I’d heard his recent album but it was only in person that I realised how close he is in sound to The Avett Brothers. With a mournful lap steel accompaniment, his thoughtful, introspective songs came over well, worthy of mention was Anna Coogan’s beautiful voice with all her unique, but still country, quirks and cracks, gathering and holding a swelling audience around he Potting Shed stage, for her well crafted emotional charged songs. This was her European début show and a real Belladrum coup, co-incidently on the very day she was announced number one with The Euro Free Form Americana Broadcasters on the Euro Americana Chart, again re-establishing Belladrum credentials as the place to see the stars of the future close up and personal.
In almost complete contrast, Belladum favourite Roberto Cassani , profane, very funny, and just as ‘true’ in his way, went down really well on the Saturday morning. A perfect guy for a festival, really, because he just puts a smile on people’s faces. Kray van Kirk, from Alaska, was an impressively polished folk performer, somewhere between Stan Rogers and Tom Paxton in sound. He picked his guitar quite beautifully, sang in a true voice and gave us a lovely cover of Gentle On My Mind.
Possibly the best surprise on the Potting Shed Stage, for me, was to hear how good Sandra MacBeth is; I’d really liked her album but you never know how good those songs are going to sound in person. She was in a pretty relaxed, devil-may-care mood but the songs still came over great. She also produced the cover of the weekend, for my money. Radiohead’s Creep was given a typically jaunty MacBeth makeover that only made the lyric creepier still. She took it one chorus too far, but it was memorable, nonetheless.
On other stages… it was slightly strange to find Blueflint playing in the Hothouse, home of young guns and blazingly noisy high profile acts. The Blueflint ladies play banjo like they were born holding one, on a backporch in deepest Appalachia. I saw them once before, some years ago, and they just seem to have got better and better. With a double bass player to beef up the sound a bit, they played and sang with practised precision and without ever being obvious and cliched, either. That was a really pleasurable half hour to open my weekend with. My own heroes, Nels Andrews, AJ Roach and Ian Parks, fresh from a mighty success in front of two dozen people in my kitchen, played to rather more people in the Grassroots tent; all I can say is that I will carry on traveling the miles to see these guys play anytime they’re anywhere close.
Nice surprises of the weekend: Rachel Sermanni, from Carrbridge, played some really interesting folk based music. Her delicate voice combined with the two fiddles, keyboards and guitar to expand the songs into some interesting soundscapes, with changes of speed mid-song that seemed to work well at making the whole so much more than the sum of its parts. It was all astonishingly poised and self confident for one so young.
On the same stage, Pete Lawrie was another one new to me, but played a succession of melodic, impassioned songs with verve and great good humour. He very much put me in mind of David Gray and I hope he doesn’t resent that because he definitely put in one of the most thoroughly enjoyable sets of my weekend. Meanwhile, over at The Hothouse, Stornoway sounded every bit as good as the hype around them suggested they should.
There’s a lot of very loud folk-based but ramped up music around at the moment, a lot of which I frankly find a little boring; much of it seems to achieve volume and a ‘show’ at the expense of musicality and a good song. To show them all how it can be done, The Levellers sounded very loud, very professional and just fine as they raged away in the way that only they can rage. One more to mention is King Creosote; not quite sure where he sits in the scheme of musical genres, but boy he (they?) sounded good bouncing along to songs I felt I knew, though in truth mostly I didn’t.
But, set of the weekend by a country mile, was Martin Stephenson and his bunch of Easter Ross pals named “Forest Sun” (not to be confused with Forest Sun bay area songster who brought his layback soulful sunshine songs to the Potting Shed Stage on Saturday). Martin himself was on miniature guitar, or toy guitar or whatever you call one of those things and the band provided mandolin, banjo, fiddle and tea chest bass. This was very much like Springsteen’s Seeger sessions, only much more fun. Breakneck playing, big grins all round and Martin’s cheery wit just made it all something really special. At one point he said something like: “Nice to see so many boys and girls in the old geezers tent. Don’t laugh! This’ll be you in twenty years time!”. Well, there were some kids in front of me and they were having a whale of a time. The set closed with a Scottish tune that had us all bouncing and sweating, but to hear immediately before that Doc Watson’s Southbound and Bill Monroe’s Blue Moon of Kentucky – both of them played as if they were the latest hot tunes – just made my Belladrum, and that’s exactly what it’s all about.
Here are some performances recored from the desk at The Potting Shed Stage.
Kray Van Kirk (Music without Borders and without Cost)
Martin Stephenson and Forest Sun (the band not the songwriter)
Forest Sun (the songwriter not the band first name Forest second name Sun) Potting Shed Stage.
Dave Desmelk and Josh White
Nels Andrews AJ Roach Ian Parks (Potting Shed Stage)
Roberto Cassani Potting Shed Stage
Lush Rollers Grass Root’s Stage.
The Lynsey Dolan band Live Grassoots stage
Sandra MacBeth Potting Shed Stage.
Joe Cassady and The Westend Sound on The Grass Roots Stage.
Cousti launching thier long awaited new album at Belladrum
Iasaac Sutherland (Musician, record producer, sound man, and potting shed stage manager) with Joe Cassady and the West End Sound.
Here are some snips from a selection of other roots acts at Belladrum 2010, including Bex Marshall, Forest Sun, Anna Coogan, Diddums, Mark Dean, The Federals, Coca Tenorio, Ali Pentland and Farquar MacDonald
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