Scotland’s celebration of Americana and Roots Music, Southern Fried, is ten years old.
Southern Fried, the premier Scottish festival of Americana roots music celebrated its tenth birthday at the tail end of July. Held annually in the fair city of Perth, sometimes called the gateway to the Highlands, it’s what one might call, a bijoux affair, although there has been a fair bit of expansion especially over the past two years. Now a four day event, there’s no camping or standing in muddy fields, good news for those who have experienced a typical Scottish summer. Instead, it’s based around a series of stellar indoor concerts – held in the celebrated concert hall – and a late night club affair which invariably sells out well in advance. In addition, there’s a wealth of free music. Two full days of music outside and in with the outdoor stage featuring full band set ups while there’s an indoor acoustic stage, both featuring UK and international acts. With open mic sessions in local pubs, an all day rockabilly event (with a classic car cavalcade) and an opportunity to sit with, listen to and discuss a classic Americana album (on vinyl) with the likes of Jim Lauderdale, there’s enough going on over the four days to satisfy even the most satiated fan.
The outdoor stage is essentially a showcase for the best of Scottish “Americana” if we can say that such a thing exists. In any case, aside from High Plains Jamboree (from Texas) and GD Sweeney & The Undercover Cowboys (originally Irish but now based in England) all the acts were homegrown. The full depth and breadth of roots based music (and more besides) was on show with blues, folk, country and gritty rock’n’roll all featuring. Local heroes the Red Pine Timber Co. limbered up the crowd with their good time take on just about all of the above with their horn section adding ballast to the energetic cavorting of the eight piece band who have a new album ready for release. The Sunshine Delay and The Wynntown Marshals proved that there’s plenty of jangle in their version of Edinburgh rock and vintage garage rockers, The Primevals (whose peer group included The Gun Club and The Cramps back in the days) powered their way through their set, the first time in all these years that I’ve seen these guys play in daylight. Their psychedelic tinged garage rock seemed to take the crowd by surprise at first but with their wave of sound blowing away the threatening clouds the majority stayed and were baying for more at the end of the set. Crowd favourites over the weekend seemed to be two bands with deep roots in primal American rock’n’roll. The Beat Poets, an instrumental garage rock/surf band combo (who share two members with The Primevals) energised everyone with their rousing versions of tunes ranging from Link Wray to John Barry. Meanwhile, Lord Rochester, a Bo Diddley themed trio (and excellently kitted out in tartan jackets) proved that you can’t sit still when that old shave and a haircut hambone beat hits you.
We need to mention the opening acts on the outdoor stage on both days, the Southern Fried Rock Shop. A longstanding feature of Southern Fried, it showcases young musicians who have attended workshops in the run up to the festival and offers them the opportunity to appear in this very public setting. Nerve wracking I’m sure but the two combos who appeared coped well as they performed, in the main, covers of well known songs, hopefully giving them the encouragement to carry on. Some graduates of the rock shop, now a band called Longstay, actually were on the bill for the outdoor stage and while they are still learning they performed well with enthusiastic encouragement from the audience. It’s a fine example of the commitment from Southern Fried to support local talent and encourage awareness of roots music.
Indoors at the same time as the outdoor shows was the acoustic stage, again this year in the main UK acts with the exception being Hannah Aldridge. Aldridge, a scion of the legendary Muscle Shoals swampers, was as good as expected. Gutsy and soulful, she sang several songs from her latest album Gold Rush with the small hall packed out. However, she was well matched by several of the other performers. Roseanne Reid, a nominee for BBC Radio 2’s Young Folk Awards, showed why she is highly touted with her careworn take on dusty Americana tales while Redwood Mountain, a duo of Dean Owens and fiddler Amy Geddes, played their interpretations of songs plucked from Alan Lomax’s Book Of American Folk Songs. Red Pine Timber Co’s Katie Whittaker, always a fine singer, was a revelation as she sang her powerful and emotive refugee song, Welcome to Life, a Gospel like plea for humanity and a song which led Billy Bragg to offer her a slot at his Glastonbury gig.
With two stages going on at the same time it was impossible to see all that went on but we caught Glasgow songwriter Steve Grozier’s set which included an impressive tribute to Jason Molina and we have to mention the acoustic stage’s compere, Roberto Cassani. He’s an Italian transplanted to Perth and he played a short set of his own, wickedly humorous songs backed on guitar by Owen Nicholson (who, for those in the know is one of the best guitarists in Scotland). Anyway, Cassani had the audience in stitches with his ribald humour while he also managed to stick in some fine jibes against our current government’s austerity policies.
The impressive concert hall hosted the big names. Nick Lowe returned for a second year running after appearing with his occasional trio set up with Andy Fairweather Low and Paul Carrack last year. This time it was Lowe songs all the way as he delved into his 40-year career for a greatest hits set although he did add a glorious version of Elvis Costello’s Alison. Loudon Wainwright (aided by Chaim Tannenbaum on banjo and David Mansfield on fiddle and mandolin) was a delight, his humour undimmed despite some recent surgery. As with Lowe he rooted through his back catalogue going back to Schooldays, the opening song from his debut, along with the ever popular Swimming Song and Dead Skunk. The other concert hall set pieces were tribute nights and we were unable to attend the opening Thursday concert dedicated to the late Chuck Berry. Helmed by Andy Fairweather Low with his eight piece band, The Hi Riders, the reports we heard were all positive with Steve Gibbons (who had a hit with Tulane in the 70’s) in particular praised. The closing event, North Star: Scotland Sings Canada, was a star studded event which tied in with Canada’s 150th celebrations and of course, the wealth of music which has come from there. Some of the cream of the Scottish music scene sang their favourite Canadian’s songs with Joni, Neil and Leonard featuring heavily but there was space for many others. These included Gordon Lightfoot, Bruce Cockburn, Ron Sexsmith, Haydon, Arcade Fire and Paul Anka. Sung by Justin Currie, Rab Noakes, Jim Grant and Dean Owens among others the songs were reinterpreted in various ways with a genuine love of them shining through. Honorary Scot for the night, Canadian Cyndi Cain reminded us that Canada is not just about white singer songwriters as she paid tribute to Bobby Taylor of Bobby & The Vancouvers (who had sadly passed away the previous week) with a superb Does Your Mama Know About Me while she also sang a gutsy Ohio based on The Isley Brothers’ arrangement with James Grant adding funky wah wah. Of course, The Band featured heavily and the night ended with all gathering on stage to sing The Weight. Highlight of the night however was the heart-rending rendition of The McGarrigles’ Talk To Me Of Mendocino, sung acapella by Emma Pollock and Karine Polwart. It was simply beautiful.
The late night sessions are where Southern Fried breaks loose and lets its hair down, there’s even dancing involved. A wristband allows access to all of the shows with the quieter songwriter sessions offering three acts while the downstairs room has two bands on. Held in the historic Salutation Hotel it’s a rare opportunity to see some great acts close up and it invariably sells out well in advance. The most anticipated act this year was Chuck Prophet and he didn’t disappoint as he and The Mission Express delivered a tutorial in how rock gigs should be; electrifying and loud, the songs played with glee and the audience caught up in the excitement from the start. Prophet’s been on a roll these last few years and songs such as Temple Beautiful, You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp) and Bobby Fuller Died For your Sins are just dynamite in his hands. The communion between the audience and the band however was there for all the acts, the intimacy of the room removing any reserve, so that Doug Seeger’s honky tonkings and Sam Outlaw’s update on the Bakersfield sound (with Jim Lauderdale, a presence on several stages over the weekend, joining in) were received just as raucously as Prophet’s set. Cyndi Cain meanwhile supercharged the impulse to dance with her update on classic Stax and Motown floorstompers. Upstairs and away from the fray if you desired, there were some elegant performances from Peter Bruntnell, Danni Nicholls, Sean Taylor and Rachel Harrington, all top class acts which would attract an audience anywhere they were playing but all part of the late night package. Canny timing allows the undecided to catch snatches of all the acts over the two nights but depending on where your head is at you can dance the night away or bask in the warm and intimate embrace of some acoustic music into the late hours.
On its tenth anniversary, Southern Fried excelled itself with its line up and there were several shows that we just couldn’t make it to including performances from Doug Seegers, Ags Connolly, Angaleena Presley, Jill Jackson and Rab Noakes. While it has expanded over the past four years with the addition of the free outdoor and indoor stages and, this year, a full Thursday programme, it remains compact and it’s a unique opportunity to spend a long weekend experiencing the best of international and local Americana artists. While the Edinburgh Fringe and Glasgow’s Celtic Connections continue to dominate Scotland’s cultural calendar Southern Fried is a bit of a hidden gem.