Kelburn Garden Party celebrated its 10th anniversary in its customary beautiful way. Set in truly unique surroundings, it's held in the grounds of a 13th century Scottish castle that is open to members of the public throughout the year. It is a wedding and events venue, a horse-riding centre and the historic castle itself is the basis for a stunning collaborative Brazilian graffiti art project unlike anything you will have seen before.
The estate is on the outskirts of Largs on the west coast of Scotland, known as the Viking Town and home to the famous Nardini’s ice cream. It’s around an hour from Glasgow, and a couple of hours from Edinburgh, yet just five minutes from a train station, and the festival organises buses from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Largs train stations to encourage as many people as possible to travel to the event by public transport or car sharing.
And for a few days every July for the last ten years, this significant historical site is transformed into a magical playground for musicians, artists, creatives and party-goers.
Proudly independent, the festival has grown more diverse every year and, in line with organiser David Boyle’s vision, richer in music and creativity. And it’s 10th anniversary was undoubtedly a celebration of everything that makes Kelburn so special.
There are now seven stages for music across the site, including the Square Stage at the centre of the festival site, the Landing Stage which made its debut last year, the Viewpoint Stage set against the backdrop of the spectacular castle itself, the Pyramid Stage, the Smugglers Tent, the Monument Stage and the Beech Plateau.
As well as the music, the arts element to the Kelburn Garden Party is an integral part of the fun. The Neverending Glen is home to a surreal and enchanting multimedia exploration of site-specific installations as well as the Monument Stage and the Beech Plateau and it is absolutely worth taking a couple of hours to climb the hill and discover the delights on offer.
Enjoying a drink in the Tea Cave is reminiscent of ancient travellers sheltering on the side of vertiginous mountains, the Moss Men led the party at the Beech Plateau, there were tarot card readings and hexes, homemade lemonade and The Print Shop: Rise Up! where you could design and print your own eco action t-shirt. There were floating fish, stone sculptures and a giant nest made from branches for people. There’s a walled garden, campfires, treehouses and a secret forest. And a genuine, breath-takingly beautiful, stop-you-in-your-tracks-gorgeous waterfall and pool.
The sold-out party started on the Thursday evening with what organisers called “a cheeky wee warm-up session” but most of the 6000-strong capacity crowd arrived on Friday with happy campers arriving on site throughout the afternoon and evening, guided by super-friendly volunteers and staff. The mass arrival led to some queues at the box office for wristbands early on Friday evening but nothing was going to dampen the spirits of the festival goers who were determined to have a good time.
Even the increasingly wet weather on Friday evening didn’t deter anyone from getting right into the party atmosphere. First band of the evening for us was Glasgow funkster and – according to his t-shirt, (Bob?) Slayer fan – Tom Maguire and the Brassholes on the Square Stage.
The eight-piece band are on a bit of an upward trajectory at the moment with gigs selling out, slots at Doune the Rabbit Hole next week and the Belladrum Tartan Heart festival next month and an appearance at the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Club in Manchester later this month.
From the minute they hit the stage they blew the audience away, with Tom tearing through a blistering set with an array of metal-esque poses – including chucking guitars up in the air. Highlights included What’s the Point, a “song that explores existential grief”, and Tom’s very own Billie-Eilish-at-Glastonbury moment when he urged the crowd to put their phones away and enjoy living life in the moment.
Friday night headliners on the Square Stage were Kelburn favourites Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5. Their set was the usual beautiful organised chaos of a show with bouncy balls, inflatable unicorns, a lady dressed up as a banana throwing fruit into the audience, a dance-off, crowd-surfing, an impromptu rendition of Happy Birthday for singer and dancer Full Fathom and a dancing dinosaur.
The Yellow Movement’s ethos of celebrating life and peace, love and mustard was perfectly embodied in this storming set which included all the singalong anthems they are known and loved for, including International Sex Hero, Gay Icon, How Many Manys Are Too Many, These Are Not The Drugs You Are Looking For, Cross the Road and Ginger Girl.
As ever, the happiness that this band spreads is infectious and everyone is smiling, everyone is happy. It is a joy to behold and a real pleasure to part of a collective feeling of something so positive and uplifting.
Although it was time to retire to the van for us middle-aged festival goers, Kelburn comes alive at night, the teenagers and ravers, the glitter and sequins and faux fur dancing away into the early hours of the morning at the Landing and Viewpoint stages in particular.
Saturday morning dawned warm, bright and sunny for those festival goers who were up to see it, the previous evening’s road that took us here a misty morning memory, to paraphrase Alabama 3.
Brass Gumbo playing the Beatles was the perfect way to ease into a mellow Saturday in the sunshine. Featuring instrumentalists from some of Scotland’s best brass and percussion bands, some of whom had played the first ever Kelburn Garden party 10 years ago, the set included such classics from the Fab Four as Strawberry Fields, Eleanor Rigby, the wonderfully apt Here Comes the Sun, and Lucy in Sky with Diamonds.
From brass to banjos and The Banjo Lounge 4, also on the Square Stage. If you have never heard House of Pain’s Jump Around played on the banjo or Cameo’s Word Up in a bluegrass style then this is the band that could change all that for you.
I Like to Move it and Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of also got the banjo treatment from the sharp-suited men in tweed who got a fair few folk up dancing to their genre-mashing treatment of some old-school classics.
Sticking with the Square Stage, next up was Supa and Da Kryptonites, a nine-piece folk, ska, reggae, soul, hip-hop swing and grime band from Edinburgh who combine MC Jay Supa’s lyrics with the sweet soulful vocals of Sarah Knowles – a wee girl with a massive voice - and an award-winning high-energy horn section.
They filled the Square Stage amphitheatre with their huge sound and had a good crowd skanking in the early evening sunshine, Supa getting pretty much everyone there to join in with the Krypto Hop in one particularly memorable moment.
In a slight change of genre, although definitely not mood or energy levels or danceability, it was off to the Smugglers Tent for The Poozies. I missed this all female powerhouse trad band when they played up near us last month and was determined not to miss them again.
A power cut during their soundcheck and then early on in their set could have derailed my plans however, had it not been for the sterling efforts of the Kelburn crew who soon restored power to the Poozies party.
And what a party it was with people of all ages up dancing along to the tunes from the talented quartet. The Poozies have been on the go since the early 90s and founder member Mary Macmaster’s bassy harp sound is, along with guitarist Tia Files’ guitar and percussion, the musical lynchpin that fiddle players Eilidh Shaw and Sarah McFadyen’s fly from, taking the increasingly large crowd on an amazing musical journey.
Back at the Square Stage in another genre shift was Gentleman’s Dub Club. These stalwarts of the festival scene opened with Music is the Girl I Love, grooving straight into Let a Little Love, Stardust from new album Lost in Space, Hotter from 2017’s Dubtopia and Dancing in the Breeze.
It was an impressive set combining a heavyweight sound with a real feel-good vibe, with trumpet player Matt Roberts and vocalist Johnathan Scratchley working the willing crowd into a frenzy, culminating in a gloriously good-natured mosh pit experience for those near the front of the stage.
Despite the positive energy and party vibes, I didn’t make it to 2am to catch headliner Leftfield’s set on the Landing Stage, choosing instead to head back to the campsite, taking in a bit of the Backyard Rhythm Orchestra at the Smugglers Tent and Bossy Love on the Pyramid Stage on the way instead.
Sunday was another dry day, although - probably thankfully for those who had been up partying all night - less warm and sunny than the day before. And despite not having made it to Leftfield, the chilled out atmosphere at Kelburn was so infectious that we only just made it on to the main site for The Carloways set at 1pm.
The Perthshire boys were worth it though, and had drawn a pretty big and increasingly appreciative crowd to the Pyramid Stage in the early afternoon sunshine. Making the set list up as they went along they played a mixture of their own material including No Sympathy from their debut EP released last year as well as popular covers such as Smokey Joe’s Café, Down to the River to Pray and Long Hot Summer Days, their brand of Americana and rock ‘n’ roll complete with honky tonk keyboards and gee-tar a great way to start the day.
After a wander around the spectacular site taking in some of the artistic and cultural aspects of the event, we headed back to the Square Stage for Brass Aye? a funk soul collective based in Glasgow comprising horn players of all shapes and sizes – everything from a sousaphone to a saxophone.
With nearly two dozen musicians dressed in gold, the stage looked as though there had been some sort of explosion in a gold mine or a brass forge, and their set was like the love-child of Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5 and a colliery brass band that is just up for having the best time.
Everything from Donovan’s Season of the Witch to Nomad’s ‘90s hit Devotion, combined with various forays into the assembled crowd, were given the brass band touch with a hint of New Orleans street style and a huge helping of fun, putting the party into the garden.
And the party atmosphere continued after their set with an appearance by SambaYaBamba, another Glasgow collective and something of an institution having been playing gigs and festivals for over 20 years now. The Brazilian style drums and brass bring a carnival atmosphere to any party and this was no exception.
Headed up by three dancers, SambaYaBamba then led the Oi Musica’s Massed Band Extravaganza featuring around 70 musicians including Brass Aye? and a number of artists and pirates from the Square Stage to the Landing Stage for a beautiful coming together of music and art that pretty much symbolises everything that Kelburn is about.
The Girobabies took to the Pyramid Stage on Sunday evening, some four years after their last appearance at Kelburn. Marking “a decade of decadence” the Glasgow grunge gutter rock outfit dedicated Late Night Sketchy to everyone “who went to Leftfield and still made it to The Girobabies” and frontman Mark McGhee got everyone singing back to him on Planet Fort Knox – “To my credit I was drinking slowly” to which they retorted “To your detriment you weren’t really”.
A song written about Kelburn after Mark McGhee’s landlord changed the locks on his flat while he was at the festival, Equinox from 2015 album Who Took Utopia, also got an airing during an impassioned set that saw McGhee snarling out his beautifully crafted lyrics to the thumping bass and drums and searing guitars.
Highlighting Kelburn’s eclectic line-up once again it was back to the Square Stage for folktronica outfit Yoko Pwno.
The last time I saw this band was at Audio Soup back in 2013 and they have come a long way since then. Trad fiddle player extraordinaire Lewis Williamson and multi-talented guitarist and producer Calum Cummins are still the backbone of the band but the addition of a drummer, guest musicians and classically trained violinist Lissa Robertson gives Yoko Pwno a real edge these days.
Folk tunes mixed with electronic beats are not that unusual but Lissa’s vocals and the frenetic duelling fiddles of Lissa and Lewis make Yoko Pwno stand out on the dancefloor and totally enthralling, drawing the enthusiastic crowd along with them in a truly immersive experience.
One of their musical influences, Shooglenifty, were next up on the Square Stage. Arguably the original pioneers of acid croft music, the Shoogles have been performing and promoting Scottish music all over the world for nearly 30 years.
This was the first time that I have seen them live since the untimely death of their fiddle player and one of their founder members, the legendary Angus R Grant, a few years ago but any doubts I had about the force of this band being diminished without Angus’s presence were soon allayed.
Traditional puirt à beul vocalist Kaela Rowan joined the band in 2015 and in 2018 The Poozies very own Eilidh Shaw – who was taught by Angus’s dad - joined as a fiddle player.
Tunes such as The Eccentric and “one written about drinking whisky in India” as well as a haunting and moving tribute written for Angus are imbued with a seemingly magical energetic force that gets everyone shoogling, no, more than that, dancing their hearts out as though their lives depended on it, uplifting souls and raising spirits. By the end of the hour and a half set the crowd are calling out for one more tune but due to licensing restrictions organisers had to call time on that aspect of the party at least.
The party did continue into the wee hours at the Landing Stage, the Saloon, The Treehouse and the Smugglers Tent though as happy revellers made the most of their weekend in the garden.
Kelburn is almost like three different festivals in one – it is whatever you need or want it to be and genuinely has something for everyone, whether that is families with young kids, artists, musicians, teenagers or older ravers and crusties determined to keep living the dream.
Being in the garden and part of this party is a truly magical and beautiful experience that you don’t want to ever end. Although the music and the art – and showcasing new talent - is a huge part of it, there is something more to it than that – the spectacular setting really encourages festie-goers to explore, to find something new, to open their minds and hearts.
As well as the art installations and the music, there was a packed programme of workshops including African drumming, aerobics, life drawing, yoga and foraging, a cabaret show, and a similarly busy schedule for kids and families – which as well as the usual circus skills and shenanigans also included, amongst many other things, shows by Mr Boom, a duck race and a space hopper race grudge match.
There was a wide range of food stalls with festival regulars Tony’s Really Good Chips and the Haggisman, as well as smoothies, bratwurst, burgers, Mexican food, pancakes, curry and pizza available. There was Pimms in the Walled Garden, a rum box by the Landing Stage and bars by the Pyramid Stage and in the Smugglers Tent and the Saloon.
The whole event was well laid out, well organised and had everything you needed in a pretty much perfect, wonderful setting. Organiser David Boyle gave a well-deserved shout out to the crew behind the event in an almost emotional moment on the Square Stage after Shooglenifty’s show, thanking everyone involved who had put so much “love and heart” into making the 10th anniversary party so special. And he wasn’t wrong.
For many people, events such as Kelburn offer a much-needed opportunity to get away from the day-to-day stresses of life and sit back and relax, catch up with friends, forget about your worries and reset your soul.
The Kelburn Garden Party is truly inspirational, affording some hope that there is a way to make a positive difference to the world we live in. Here’s to the next ten very special, magical years.
And in the meantime, if you can’t wait until next July to experience some of the magic for yourselves, you could always check out the Psychedelic Forest Carnival at Kelburn in September.
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