Around 2500 festival-goers went Doune the Rabbit Hole last weekend, losing themselves in three days of musical, theatrical and yes, 'cos of the World Cup, even sporting delights on the beautiful Cardross Estate in Stirlingshire.
As with most festivals in Scotland last year, wet weather badly affected the 2017 edition of DTRH, but organisers were determined to come back with a bang and put on event that everyone, whether loyal supporters of the event or newcomers to it, would enjoy. And they certainly did it. In fact they absolutely smashed it. Changes to the dates of the event and to the site layout - and probably the best line-up of any festival this year - all combined to make the ninth DTRH one of the best yet.
This year DTRH was held during the school holidays in mid-July - several weeks earlier than its previously traditional date in August which fell after the schools had gone back - with those behind the event trying to encourage more families to come along and enjoy the family-friendly fun on offer. And organisers were so pleased with the success of the change in date and received such positive feedback on the 2018 event that just two days after the last notes of the festival faded on Sunday night they announced that it would be back on Friday, July 19th to Sunday, July 21st 2019.
There were also changes to the layout this year to allow the ground time to recover from the trials and tribulations of the torrential weather last year, and which also seemed to work really well.
Cardross Estate is located on the border of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park in beautiful rolling countryside but within easy reach of Glasgow and Edinburgh and just 20 minutes or so away from Stirling. It is home to some magnificant old trees that have been there for hundreds of years and seen many a story unfold, not least of which is that of the festival in recent years.
Despite the change in layout the old familiar favourites were all back – the Jabberwocky main stage, the Baino Stage and the family area. This year the Beat-Root Cafe was a popular addition to the event, hosting spoken word performances and an unamplified music spot alongside its chill out area and super tasty homemade treats including raspberry and white chocolate cookies, caramel chocolate brownie, lemon drizzle cake, gluten free cup cakes, rosemary focaccia bread, spinach and feta pie, falafel burgers and the always amazing chai – and all in its brand-new-this-festie-season tent.
Closeby was the Jam Tent and campfire area, and scattered throughout the small but perfectly formed site were groups of hammocks which proved popular with people of nearly all ages, keen just to kick back and relax in the sun. The two bar areas were located right by the Jabberwocky and Whistleblower stages respectively so you never had far to go to get a drink while waiting for or watching any of the bands. In fact, you never had to go far to get anything, everything you needed was right there within a couple of minutes' walk.
The family area offered a range of activities and workshops throughout the weekend – everything from circus skills and dancing to knitting and puppet making. There were drumming workshops, family yoga sessions, meditation, belly dancing, a pirate ship and even a session on making your own natural toothpaste. There were alpacas to meet, stories to be heard, books to be read, faces to be painted and traditional games to be played with Arbour Antics and the lovely Chas. And in a really nice touch that is so obvious it is surprising other festivals don't make more of it, kids and their parents are encouraged to play together and share the range of experiences on offer rather than having parents standing round just watching their children play.
There was a good range of food on offer throughout the site as well, the wonderful Woodburn Pizzas and Haggisman catering for veggies and meat-eaters alike, while Tony's Really Good Chips, selling, you've guessed it, really good chips - and they really are really good - was busy all weekend.
Another popular addition to the festival circuit is Yorlim Y Not's wood-fired Travelling Turkish Steam Room which was back at DTRH again this year and which helped ease some aching bones after a weekend of dancing.
The change in dates also meant that this year DTRH was held over the world cup finals weekend, and organisers, recognising that football is more than just a beautiful game to at least some folk, had kindly arranged for a big screen at the top of the site to show the tennis and the footie. Hundreds of festie-goers - including members of Sunday night headliners the Levellers - gathered in the gentle rain on Sunday afternoon to watch Croatia's plucky performance against new world champions France.
Other highlights of the festival were the lovely man writing stories on a vintage typewriter while you waited, and the personal postie service who delivered thank you notes and love letters to festie goers throughout the weekend.
With so much going on and such a chilled out vibe it would almost be easy to forget about the music. But those behind DTRH went all out to ensure that they had the best line-up going as part of their mission to make sure everyone, whether loyal supporters of the event over the years or first-timers, all enjoyed themselves.
With over 70 bands across four stages there really was something for everyone musically speaking and the DTRH team had lined up a real mix of bands for festie-goers – everything from Tights who were playing their first ever public gig to Big Country and the Levellers who have been touring the world for decades. There were singer-songwriters, reggae and ska bands, folk bands, punk bands, metal bands, rock bands, prog bands, trad bands, trance bands, rockabilly bands, world music - pretty much everything - on the bill.
In an ideal start to the weekend, dub reggae techno legends Dreadzone opened the festival and got everyone grooving in the early evening sunshine on Friday. From the set opener of Life, Love and Unity followed by Rise Up it was clear they were the perfect choice. This is a band that seems to be made for restoring souls and raising spirits and vocalist Spee certainly got the party started, leading the crowd in new songs Mountain, 16 Hole, American Dread and Music Army as well as the classic dub anthems of Zion Youth and Captain Dread. It was going to be a good weekend.
Up next was the UK's official best part-time band, Edinburgh's sharp-dressed ska juggernaut Bombskare, on the Whistleblower stage. They started as they meant to go on, taking no prisoners right from the off with new material as well as their has-to-be-heard-to-be-believed version of Britney Spears' Toxic. Their typically energetic set included Freedom 35, Down to Earth, Lloyd Knibb - which is dedicated to the drummer from the Skatellites who Bombskare hail as their patron saint - Done No Matter What and Do All Dogs Go to Heaven. And despite the relatively small stage, well, small for a nine-piece band with a propensity for ferocious skanking, they even managed a couple of wee stage invasions by young ska fans during their set.
Booking Akala was something of a stroke of genius on the part of the organisers. In recent years the BAFTA and MOBO award-winning artist, writer and cultural commentator has emerged from London's hip hop underground to the mainstream appearing at numerous festivals both in the UK and around the world as well as on television speaking about a wide range of subjects from music, race, youth engagement, British/African-Caribbean culture and the arts, and earlier this year completed a near sell-out UK tour.
And his headline set at DTRH was something to behold. Supported by his DJ and drummer, the duo created an immense wall of sound, and the contrast between the fervour and passion that Akala so clearly feels about the issues he addresses and articulates in his music, with his calm, poised and gentle demeanour between songs is the perfect illustration of the measure of the man. He whipped the crowd into a frenzy with Electro Livin, Sun Tzu, Sometimes, Roll Wid Us and Bit by Bit, culminating with the stunning Vision Part 4 in a stunning set that blew everyone away, left everyone a little bit wiser and was an early contender for the stand-out performance of the weekend.
Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny and in a marked contrast to the washout of the 2017 festie season in Scotland was going to be a scorcher of a day. It was a day for sun-cream and drinking lots of water, and, for the many dog owners at Doune, one for finding shade under the many trees to keep their pooches cool. Despite the warm temperatures, the vibe was completely chilled out and relaxed with everyone making the most of a rare actual summer in Scotland.
The first band of the day for us was The Strange Blue Dreams on the Jabberwocky stage. Championed by DJ Vic Galloway I had heard them on the radio and loved their skiffle and rockabilly sound. Determined to see them live I wasn't disappointed, and was delighted to discover that their musical lineage went as far back as The Needles in '90s Aberdeen when I had seen singer Dave Addison perform on numerous occasions.
Now based in Glasgow, their gig at Doune was hot on the heels of a recent appearance at the Dundee Blues Festival and their mellow vibe was perfect for a sunny afternoon. The Ballad of the Sun and the Moon, single Twilight Zone and Bitterness were highlights of their 45 minutes in the sun, which was followed by a performance by their alter egos The Shiverin' Sheiks on the Whistleblower stage later in the day. Proudly retro, the boys' beautiful harmonies and expert musicianship shone through, and their sharp look just completed the vintage vibe perfectly.
In a change of pace, it was award-winning contemporary trad band Elephant Sessions up next on the Jabberwocky stage. Their set at DTRH followed a massive year for them last year in which their debut album won the Trad Music Awards Album of the Year accolade and which saw them perform at a string of festivals across Europe.
With a sound and style that could have been composed specifically for dancing in a field surrounded by beautiful trees and hills in Scotland, Elephant Sessions belted out tunes from their album, All We Have is Now, as well as new numbers, with an urgency and enthusiasm that was totally infectious and had the gathering crowd dancing along in the sunshine in their bare feet – the song Summer being particularly appropriate for the occasion.
Next up was Rise Kagona and the Jit Jive Band, the latest project from the now Edinburgh-based founder member of and guitarist with the Bhundu Boys, and their African-inspired tunes sounded great on a sunny afternoon, bringing a wee taste of world music to a field in Stirlingshire.
It was back to contemporary folk with the trailblazers of the genre, the legendary Peatbog Faeries on the Jabberwocky stage. Over 25 years at the forefront of the trad scene has not diminished this band's impact or energy one little bit and the field was bouncing with happy smiley people for the whole of their hour-long set – although with a back catalogue of seven studio albums an hour is never going to be enough.
The lads from the Isle of Skye showed why they are a perennial festival favourite, with another storming performance of their blend of traditional music fused with trance and electronica, including highlights such as Room 215 from the Dust album and Tom in the Front from Blackhouse, and the sheer joy they still get from performing shone through with every note they played.
In a wee change to the published programme, The Beat's slot was brought forward a couple of hours. Currently in the middle of a European-wide festival tour, The Beat, featuring Ranking Roger, also have a number of dates in the US lined up for later in the year, which is likely to make their 700-mile round trip to Doune seem like a wee day out .
Performing with his son, Ranking Junior, and four other band members, Roger played an hour-long set to a stowed out Baino tent full of bouncing people. They played Beat classics Tears from a Clown and Mirror in the Bathroom as well as new material from their latest album Bounce including My Dream and Fire Burn. Rock the Casbah, which Joe Strummer had originally asked Roger to sing on in 1981, and Can't Get Used To Losing You, which the Beat famously covered, also both got a raptuous reception.
Temples headlined the Jabberwocky stage on Saturday night and proved that the musical spirit of the '60s and '70s is alive and well. In what was their first gig in Scotland this year the velvet and leather clad quartet from Kettering brought their psychedelic rock to the field in a mass of dry ice and ethereal lighting.
It was another wall of sound set with almost Hendrix-esque leanings, plenty of heavy bass and swirling guitars and keyboards reminscient of early Kasabian with a hint of Primal Scream's psychedelic era, although without that band's primal rage, and they brought Saturday's main stage entertainment to an impressive close.
After one of the driest and warmest spells in Scotland in decades – and even despite the memories of last year's summer of mud – many would have welcomed the gentle rain that fell on Sunday morning. The campsite woke up to the sound of rain on canvas and campervans and some enthusiastic covers of One Step Beyond, Great Balls of Fire and I Wanna Be Like You from the Jungle Book coming from the arena.
We arrived in the arena just in time to catch the end of Broken Records' lunchtime set on the Jabberwocky stage, disappointed not to have seen more of the band once billed by NME as the Scottish Arcade Fire but impressed by their enthusiastic and almost Springsteen-esque levels of commitment to their performance.
Next up at Jabberwocky was fellow Scottish band, We Were Promised Jetpacks, another band with a big sound. It's been a few years since I have seen these guys live and once again they let their powerful music do the talking with no interaction with the audience at all.
By contrast, Manchester's The Mouse Outfit, showed why they are one of the UK's best live hip hop bands around at the moment with a performance that has been honed on the festival circuit over the the last few years. The eight-piece band shared their billing with the afore-mentioned world cup final but still drew a big crowd with their infectious smiles and beats, even attracting a herd of onesie-clad cows and their farmer for an impromptu dance-off.
Over in a packed out Baino tent, crowds gathered for the set by former Arab Strap frontman Aidan Moffat and guitar maestro RM Hubbert. I was keen to catch their performance having missed their headline slot at the Solas Festival in June, and because we live in Blairgowrie, home of folk legend Sheila Stewart who had such a profound impact on the 2014 Paul Fegan documentary about Moffat's mission to re-interpret traditional folk ballads and bring them to urban streets.
Moffat's rich voice and Hubbert's haunting guitar, supported by cellist and vocalist Siobahn Wilson for much of the set, held the appreciative crowd spell-bound as they introduced material from their first collaborative album Here Lies the Body, released earlier this year.
Every song tells a story and Moffat's bittersweet lyrics are a masterclass. From set opener Mz Locum - “She’s a bombshell in leggings, A goddess in jeggings” - to final song Fringe, which he dedicates to all the ladies who will be peeing in a forest later that night, he takes the audience on an observational trip through love, death, hope and acceptance. Everything Goes, She Runs, Quantum Theory Love Song, Party On (which he introduces as their one happy song) and Car Song all received raptuous applause from the audience.
From the thoughtfulness and measured contemplation of Moffat and Hubbert, it was back to the Jabberwocky stage for a rambunctious and rousing set from Fife rockers Big Country, currently in the middle of a string of show dates throughout Europe and Japan – including a date with The Skids in Glasgow later this year to mark the 35th anniversary of the release of their seminal album, The Crossing.
The distinctive Big Country sound of their big hits of the '80s rang out through the hills, with Look Away and In A Big Country stand out moments as Bruce Watson and co led the crowd on a heart-warming nostalgia trip filled with some pretty impressive guitar work and even some scissor kicks.
And then it was time for the Levellers, who can always be relied upon to provide a foot-stomping, thought-provoking, uplifting set of energetic, passionate and anthemic singalong folk punk. And they didn’t disappoint, kicking off with hi-octane performances of The Game, 15 years and Belarus.
They charged through The Road, Sell Out and One Way, taking breath for a moment for the beautiful Julie, and then careering headlong into Dirty Davey, Cholera Well, Riverflow and Liberty, all searing fiddles and guitars underpinned by the rock solid bouncing rhythm section of Charlie on drums and Jez on bass. Beautiful Day and Just The One were the perfect finish to a classic set by these legends of the festival circuit and worthy headliners – and indeed the perfect finish to a perfect weekend.
Except that it wasn't over quite yet. The Langan Band had taken to the stage in the Whistleblower tent for one final very fitting festival finale, belting out their massive and infectious Celtic, Gypsy, Roma and Flamenco inspired sound.
It was great to see them back on the festie trail after singer-guitarist-songwriter-drummer John Langan suffered a horrific sounding accident earlier in the year which snapped his humorous bone in half. A stand-in guitarist has seen them fulfil their gig commitments and their set at Doune saw them at their customary best.
In a blistering hour-long set of technically brilliant and reeling and jigging awesomeness they sang about the plight of the Roma and played either a song that was about daft driving or was a daft song about driving, with John's beautiful voice, Alistair's fiddle playing and Dave's double bass all in fine fettle, bringing the curtain down on a truly awesome festival in spectacular style.
As the song goes, there's only one way of life and that's your own, and that pretty much sums up the whole ethos of Doune The Rabbit Hole. In these deeply troubling times, in a world that is so politically toxic, music is a good place to escape to and find a sort of peace. Festivals like Doune provide a restoration of the soul and a reinforcement of all that is good and right with the world, a reminder that there is still much to be positive and hopeful and joyful about.
The beautiful peaceful vibe was reflected in the smiley faces throughout the site, the friendships that were forged and the memories that were made. Crusties, punks, hippies, ravers and everyone in between were all bouncing together in a field, sharing food, fun and frolics. Respect must go to the organisers, the site management crew, the traders, and the security team, In-House, and everyone who worked so hard and went all out to make this the best Doune yet.
And in the euphoria of the after-festival glow, organisers have promised an even better DTRH in 2019 to mark its tenth anniversary. I have no idea how they are going to surpass this year's event, which was pretty much perfect in every way, but I'm sure if anyone can the team behind this year's festival can. I would recommend getting your early bird tickets now before everyone else realises just how good this wee festival is.
latest on this festival
Doune The Rabbit Hole 2019 review
line-ups & rumours