Gentlemen of the Road (GOTR) is British rock superstars Mumford & Sons' baby, inspired by their visit to the best kept secret amongst festie goers, Loopallu in Ullapool, in 2009.
We were fortunate enough to be there for that gig, it was a stormer of a set and an immense weekend, two weeks before the release of Sigh No More and just before the waist-coated ones went global, taking the world by storm.
Loopallu takes place on a campsite in Ullapool and for one weekend in September the population of the small fishing town on the north-west coast of Scotland pretty much doubles.
As well as the festival itself, which has traditionally punched way beyond its supposed weight in terms of attracting big names, there is also a fringe festival, where many of the acts perform small informal gigs at the various pubs in the town.
The pubs and shops in Ullapool embrace Loopallu and the bands and hardy festival goers who often end up spending more time in the warmth of the licensed premises than their tents on the site. It is a beautiful symbiotic relationship that clearly had a profound impact on the Mumfords.
And so, since 2012 the Mumford boys have taken the principles of Loopallu on the road to celebrate “a real place, with real people” at various locations across the world.
Billed as 'stopovers', the Gentlemen of the Road events have taken in tiny rural towns in Australia, small cities in America, places rich with history or ancient tradition such as Lewes in England or in stunning locations such as Galway in Ireland.
And this year they were back in Scotland for their only European date in the Gentlemen of the Road calendar and who better to team up with again but Highlands-based promoter Robert Hicks – the man who first brought them to Ullapool six years ago.
The chosen location, Rothiemurchus in Aviemore, is a truly stunning place, a wide open space in the shadow of the spectacular Cairngorm mountains and within walking distance of a town used to welcoming outdoor enthusiasts. It is also just off the A9, the main route to the north of Scotland.
And the Aviemore Stopover also neatly filled a gap in the Highland calendar for festival fans missing the former Rock Ness event.
In true Loopallu spirit, people started arriving in Aviemore on Thursday, more than ready to get into the spirit of things. The Gentlemen of the Road website lists a number of Stopover 'rules' which include 'don't miss out on camping' and fans certainly took this on board with campervan and caravan tickets selling out well in advance.
Thursday night entertainment was lined up for the smaller stage, including home-grown talent Spud The Piper, and the gorgeous Hunter and The Bear from just up the road, and the sun was shining on lots of happy campers.
Friday was a much less sunshiny day, with increasingly heavy rain falling throughout the day. The 16,000 or so expected attendees weren't put off though, embracing the mud and the rain that is just part and parcel of this summer in Scotland. The wettest July on record ended in a by now customary damp fashion, but the Scottish festie crowd proved its hardiness and passion for partying in a field to good music yet again.
And the Highlands were certainly at their most evocative on Friday as the rain fell over the misty mountains, the sun peaking through the clouds from time to time making beautiful, magical rainbows.
Rachel Sermanni is another Loopallu alumni and a local Speyside girl. In a shining example of the stated GOTR aim to meld the “culture of a music festival and actual culture as lived by real-life people”, the girl from along the road at Carrbridge took to the main stage with her band on Friday afternoon, promoting her new CD, Tied to the Moon, which was released last month, and wowing the crowd.
Up next was The Very Best who went a long way to living up to both their name and the name of their 2009 album, the Warm Heart of Africa. The collaboration between the London-based DJ and production duo Radioclit and Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya brought a touch of warmth and a wee ray of sunshine to a cold and rainy Scottish afternoon.
King Charles was also popular with the crowd, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who has toured the UK and the States with Mumford and Sons, on fine form.
Ben Howard rocked out from the start, kicking off his set with Small Things, Rivers In Your Mouth and Evergreen. The bedraggled crowd loved his set, and he and his band seemed to be loving the show as well, giving it their all to I Forget Where We Were, The Fear and End of the Affair, before encores The Wolves and Esmeralda, the lights from his set tracing through the rain and over the Scottish hills.
Saturday saw sunnier spells, the drier weather winning the battle for the Rothiemurchus soul as the day went on. Everything seems better when the sun shines, easier at least – even traversing the mud became an adventure, more of a game of chance when the sun came out.
Despite the estimated 16,000 crowd, the relatively compact site never felt crowded. There were queues at the bar and food outlets in between bands, but nothing you wouldn't expect at an event of this size.
Aviemore was buzzing too, as people again heeded the GOTR rules of taking 'the party from the stage to the town' and eating the local food and drinking the local drink, following the tree and bunting-lined path into town.
It was a relatively late start for us on the Saturday then, with Lianne La Havas our first main stage band of the day. I am a sucker for a powerful female vocalist and Lianne drew me in from Aviemore itself with her voice. Lianne's appearance at Gentlemen of the Road was the day after her second album Blood was released, and she gave an outstanding performance, showcasing songs from Blood and her debut album Is Your Love Big Enough.
Next up on the main stage was London band The Maccabees, who also released their new album - in their case their fourth – on Friday. Their hour long set featured new material from Marks to Prove It as well as older favourites such as Latchmere - introduced as a song about things you forget about and take for granted - and Precious Time.
Their massive, intense performance got the the crowd rocking in the sunshine, with the answer to their question how many people can you get jumping up and down in a muddy field for Can You Give It being several thousand, although it is difficult to count hundreds of folk when they are all jumping up and down.
An almost blood-curdling scream heralded the eponymous track from the new album, which features a guitar riff that I think rivals that of The Damned's Eloise, quickly followed up by No Kind Words, and a guest appearance by none other than man of the moment Marcus Mumford himself.
And then it was time for Primal Scream. What can I say? Well, this was the first time I have ever seen them in daylight. And sober (me not them). And in the last eight years I'm ashamed to admit. Bobby Gillespie's peddlars of psychedelic rock, acid house and trip hop blues were one of the mainstays of my 90s soundtrack and I will love them forever for that.
Glasgow's Gillespie worked his magic on the crowd like he worked his tambourine and maraccas, taking us all on a trip through time via Jailbird, Kill All Hippies, Shoot Speed Kill Light and Swastika Eyes before slowing the pace down with Damaged.
Country Girl, Loaded – which Bobby claimed he "got a bit carried away" during – and Movin' On Up all built up the frenzy again, culminating in a climatic Rocks and a lot of very happy people in a very muddy field.
And then it was the Gentlemen of the Road themselves, Mumford & Sons. There were massive cheers as the band came on, the crowd were bouncing from the off, screaming their love for the unassuming folk rock stars – literally “I love you Mumford” in the case of one front row fan girl.
Opening song Snake Eyes from new album Wilder Mind set the tempo, quickly followed by I Will Wait from Babel and Wilder Mind itself. They thanked Rob Hicks, encouraging the audience to “sing a song for the Highlands” and dedicating Awake My Soul from debut effort Sigh No More to him.
New song Believe was introduced as one for the lighters, or in today's terms, mobile phone torches, while Marcus commented that they were “just going to have fun” at this gig. Tom Hobden from Noah and the Whale played fiddle on Ghosts That We Knew and The Cave was another crowd pleaser before encores Little Lion Man and The Wolf brought the set to a fitting close.
The party continued for many however, not least of which was the Mumford men and their friends and family. Simian Mobile Disco entertained for an hour or so, and although a fair few folk headed home, plenty stayed to party in the campsites and in Aviemore, making the most of the famed Highland hospitality.
So it was a good weekend then.
The site was spectacular, although spectacularly muddy by the end. The car park and campervan area were located on a small hill overlooking the main festival arena but it was just as quick to walk into Aviemore as it was to walk to the car park, which further encouraged people to spend time – and money - in the town.
The car park was pretty muddy by the Saturday with organisers advising day visitors to park in town on hard standing rather than in the field, but by Sunday when the majority of campers were heading home things had dried out enough for there not to be too many issues.
The sound quality on the very impressive main stage was immense, the lighting amazing, and it was a great idea to have the second stage by the food outlets and staggering performance times so that you didn't have to choose who to go and see. The second stage also acted as a showcase for bands to the hungry hoards queuing for food and entertainment. Often it is the apparently simple ideas that are the best ones.
This festival was a great opportunity to see one of the biggest bands of recent years, one of the biggest bands Scotland has ever produced, critically acclaimed and up and coming new talent, and all in Aviemore.
As the GOTR website says, they “bring the music, the stage, the flags and the fans; everything else belongs to the town”. Mumford and Sons really are living by the oft-used mantra of giving something back and – as evidenced by their heartfelt onstage thank you to Rob Hicks during their own set – remembering your friends.
They say that the stopovers are a celebration of all things local, 'their energy and enthusiasm, their civic pride…their favourite local beer' - and in this case whisky too with a cute wee whisky barn stocking a good range of amber nectar - and that they are 'a beautiful thing – maybe the most beautiful thing that we do'.
They lived up to their promise of giving people an opportunity to get back more than they could imagine and the crowd certainly lived up to their end of the deal to have as much fun as humanly possible.
Haste ye back as they say in these parts.
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