It's been a while since I last visited Loopallu, a couple of years at least, and even longer since I last reviewed it, so with the move last year to a new site on Ullapool pier and a promise from the organisers that the truly independent festie will be back next year if the public wants it, it seemed like a good time to go back.
Loopallu takes place every September in the small fishing village of Ullapool on the north west coast of Scotland in what has to be some of the most stunning scenery for a festie site ever, nestled on the shores of Loch Broom and in amongst the mountains.
It is an hour or so by car north west of Inverness and the drive up there at this time of year is just spectacular, the sun shining on the glorious autumn colours of the mountains and trees and glittering off the rivers and lochs.
It has always been the last festival of the season, the festival for the hard core who made the journey to one of the most north-westerly reaches of mainland Scotland and then braved the often inclement weather.
Now in it's 14th year, it moved last year from its original home in the village's campsite to a new location on the pier just a few hundred yards away and right in the heart of the village, which although means no official camping for hardcore Loop fans, it does also mean a mud-free site which is always a bonus.
And enterprising festie-goers still managed to camp - as well as book every guest room in the village. There were vans parked in every side street and empty driveway in Ullapool, and more than one car park and works' yard was home to a variety of campervans and motorhomes for the weekend.
It used to be something of a Loopallu tradition to arrive on the Thursday night to make the most of the weekend and the long drive up, and despite the lack of a campsite that still seemed to be the case, with folk arriving from Wednesday and, in a couple of cases, from a week-long tour of the islands.
Another Loop tradition that continues is the opening of the festival by the Ullapool Pipe Band, who parade through the village into the site where they play a set of rousing tunes in the impressive festival tent.
They were followed on Friday afternoon this year by Highland ceilidh band Tweed who got the crowd dancing from the off with their entertaining and energetic blend of traditional ceilidh and funk, reggae and ska and lots in between - including an awesome Highland version of Robert Miles' Children - which has been honed at various festival performances as well as at their weekly residency slot in Aviemore. The trio also played at Scottish legends Runrig's final gig back in August.
If you don't manage to catch them in Aviemore between now and the end of the year - and it's worth catching them just for the craic - they have a Hogmanay gig lined up in Inverness, and will also be playing Cyprus next May with a host of other Scottish bands including Bombskare and Edgar Road as part of the wonderfully named Island Fling festival.
Next up for us on the main stage was Bad Manners. Yup, that Bad Manners. And yes, still fronted by Buster Bloodvessel some 42 years after he first burst on to the two-tone and ska scene of the early 80s, although the 2018 Buster is a much slimmed down version following his dramatic weight loss several years ago.
The seven-piece band burst on to the stage in Ullapool too, kicking off with This Is Ska, My Girl Lollipop, Lorraine, I Love You (Special Brew) and Lip Up Fatty. Everyone was dancing away on the pier in a packed out tent and Can't Take My Eyes Off You had two thousand people singing their hearts out, drowning out Buster and his band, the brass section of which was pulling some very suave boy band moves that Franki Valli and the Four Seasons would have been proud of. They finished in customary style with the Can Can, which predictably saw several folk attempting the famous dance routine.
Loopallu regular, broadcaster and musician Mark Radcliffe, was back in Ullapool with his new electronica act, UNE, performing just a few days before he announced a break from broadcasting following his cancer diagnosis. The minimalist set showcased tracks from an album Radcliffe says will be released in the spring next year, and he urged those gathered not to let the fact that they didn't know any of the tunes to stop them enjoying themselves. It was no Family Mahone, although Radcliffe did break out both his guitar and drum pads at various points during the gig, which culminated with a techno version of Deep Purple's classic Smoke on the Water.
By the time Breath Underneath were due to take to the stage the rumour mill was rife with the theory - verified by several anagram fans on site - that they were actually Achiltibuie's very own Hunter and the Bear.
And Hunter and the Bear fans weren't disappointed as the four-piece took to the stage, initially in balaclavas, which was temporarily slightly disappointing to some of their fans anyway. The hirsute band have played Loopallu before, but this time were back with an edgier, rockier sound than when I have previously seen them perform. They still have beautiful voices and very beautiful hair but seemed to have grown into themselves, pounding out riffs and belting out anthems in an almost young Biffy Clyro-esque way - sort of like an innocent Biffy without the rage and hurt and raw emotion.
They opened with Skin Tight, rushing straight into Renegade and Paper Heart. Singles Charlotte Street, Chemical and Electric all got an airing, as did IX, Hologram, Nickajack and You Can Talk from their 2017 album, and they finished with D.R.K, totally rocking out and giving it their all throughout their hour-long set. They told the delighted crowd that they loved playing Ullapool and - echoing the festival organisers - said that they would play Loopallu as long as people wanted them to.
Friday night headliners were 90s indie band The Bluetones and it was straight back to that decade from the set opener Cut Some Rug, followed by Keep the Home Fires Burning and their first ever single The Fountainhead.
Marblehead Johnson was introduced as a "hit from 22 years ago" while After Hours was described as a song about "drinking too much and how much fun it is" and Emily's Pine as "a song about being a beautiful place with the person you love most in the world" - which is kinda fitting for Loopallu.
The Bluetones suffered from that old Loopallu issue of everyone disappearing to the pubs for the fringe events before the end of their set, and probably for the warmth too as the temperature fell and the wind got up, but on the other hand the pubs were stowed out, with folk having to queue to get into some of them, which is no doubt one of the reasons Loopallu has maintained its enduring popularity both with festie goers and local businesses alike.
Saturday morning kicked off for us with a very blustery wander along the beach revisiting old stomping grounds and around the street market which offered everything from beautifully and intricately painted local stones to sweeties, mugs, fridge magnets, knitted goods and artwork.
Loopallu added a literary element to the music festival a few years ago, in collaboration with the Ullapool Book Festival. On the literary front, which took place in the warmth of the ferry terminal on Saturday afternoon, the line-up featured Liam Mcllvanney, son of acclaimed Scottish author William and an award-winning writer in his own right - he won the prestigious McIlvanney prize, previously the Scottish Crime Book of the Year award which was renamed after his father, the week before Loopallu at the Bloody Scotland crime-writing festival.
Fellow Scottish crime writer Val McDermid was also on the bill, with broadcaster, journalist and another Loopallu regular Vic Galloway sandwiched between the two novelists. We only managed to catch Vic's slot of the three sessions and it was an engaging and entertaining hour, a rollercoaster of a ride through the history of Scottish pop as documented in his new book Rip It Up, written to accompany an exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.
The enthusiasm and indeed almost encyclopedic knowledge of this self-confessed music nerd was apparent as he spoke about everything from the sense of melancholy that seems to run through Scottish music and its juxtaposition with the anthemic hope and optimism also prevalent to the sense of camaraderie in Scottish festival audiences and how punk rock saved his life - all to the background sound of the beats coming from the big top tent.
Back in the site, Ruairdh MacLean on the squeezebox was entertaining the afternoon crowd in between the main stage acts with his patter as much as his musical talent - both of which he has in abundance. He covered the Saw Doctors, played Dougie Maclean's The Gael from The Last of the Mohicans, and Fleetwood Mac's The Chain, which he claimed to be practising as he had been asked to play it at a wedding.
Food wise on the small and beautifully formed site were three Loop regulars, Mutley's Crepes, wood-fired pizzas and Highland Hog Roasts, which catered for hungry festie goers throughout the weekend. Of course the beauty of Loopallu being located right in the heart of the village which gives it its name is that the many pubs - and for a village with a population of around 2,500 people it has many pubs - offer meals as well, pretty much quadrupling the food options for those who choose to eat offsite.
As well as the onsite bar, which seemed to have less ale options available than in previous years, there was also a Prosecco Palace as Loop reflects changes in festie-goers drinking habits, and a new gin created especially for Loopallu and available exclusively in Ullapool. It was created for the festival by the recently established Highland Liquor Company which is the first company to distil spirits in Ullapool in what is the UK's most north-westerly distillery, and it certainly proved to be popular, selling out with hours of launching.
The festival also committed to be as plastic free as possible, inspired by the local school's recent campaign to make the village a plastic straw free zone, and one of the initiatives it introduced was a re-useable plastic cup scheme which saw festival goers enjoy a £1 off their beverage of choice if they returned their plastic cup to the bar to be refilled. The fact that the cups were branded with the Loopallu logo just added to the genius of the idea.
The weather was getting increasingly wet and windy but everyone just seemed to put another layer of clothes on and get on with it. Pretty much every second person there ended up sporting a Loopallu bobble hat of one hue or another in another stroke of merchandising and branding genius from the organisers.
First band of the day for us on Saturday was Ho-Ro. This award-winning young group incorporates lots of different styles and genres into their take on Scottish trad music, playing a mix of traditional Gaelic songs and their own material as well as some covers. Their set included The Pup from their new album, old favourite Rory Macleod and a cover of Dougie Maclean's classic Caledonia which featured an enthusiastic crowd sing-along and the biggest cheer of the set. They encouraged the crowd to stay warm by dancing, which worked, albeit briefly.
Willie Campbell was back at Loopallu for the second year in a row but this year he was with the recently reformed 90s guitar pop foursome Astrid rather than with the Tumbling Souls. The singer-songwriter and his pals from Lewis were on fine form, rocking out, and, as Willie pointed out, working up a sweat despite the chilly temperatures outside the tent. Unfortunately I missed the start of the set but from what I did see they played a mixture of older material and new songs, including Over the Hill, to an appreciative audience.
The second 'change over' band of the day was father and son duo The Cowans who also played to a hugely appreciative audience between the main stage acts on the Saturday night. Despite the cold and the rain they played several sets of both classic covers of tunes by The Clash, The Specials, The Levellers and The Jam, and original material including Davy Cowan's Working Man.
And in a touching tribute to Davy's friend and bandmate, Graham 'the Hosebeast' Hosie, who died in 2016, they played Stiff Little Fingers' At The Edge. A collection at last year's festival raised enough money for a specially dedicated memorial bench for Hosie, which will be placed overlooking the old festival site, where the duo played pretty much every year, and out over Loch Broom.
Other than Bad Manners, probably the most hotly anticipated and talked about set of the weekend was the appearance at Loopallu of performance punk poet Dr John Cooper Clarke. In a set that was almost as whimsical as it was punk, he talked about unanswered questions such as how deep would the sea be if there were no sponges and read some of his poetry, including 'Get back on drugs you fat f**k', 'I've fallen in love with my wife' and 'Hire Car', delighting the crowd with his wit, wisdom and slightly irreverent take on life.
Next up on the main stage was British Sea Power, a six piece indie rock band based in Brighton, which is pretty much the opposite end of Britain from Ullapool. Their earnest and esoteric sound, heightened by Abi Fry's haunting viola, has received much critical acclaim and they powered through nearly twenty years of material, kicking off with Machineries, Bad Boho, Who's in Control and What You Doing.
They were joined by a pair of eight-foot high dancing bears who spent much of the set high-fiving and dancing with crowd - and having their photos taken - as well as a creature on the stage that reminded me of a mash-up of Jordy Verrill and the Ted Danson seaweed character from Creepshow, although that is probably more of a reflection on my misspent youth than anything else.
Headliners for Saturday night were the mighty Alabama 3, who were one of the reasons I first came to Loopallu back in 2006 and once again were on a fair few folk's 'must-see' list. In the middle of a five-date mini tour of Scotland and Carlisle, they showed no signs of being jaded at all and blasted out nearly twenty of their hits from the last twenty of so years.
They kicked off with Let's Go Out and Bad to the Bone, going straight into the anthemic Up Above My Head and Woke Up This Morning which as we all know was the theme from The Sopranos. There was barely any chat from Larry and crew, the Rev D Wayne Love noticeable by his absence, but the crowd's reaction and the general consensus after the show was that this was one of the best gigs they had played in a while.
Stole the Moon and Bulletproof saw Larry and the Rev Be Atwell noising up the audience before bringing the tempo down just a notch with The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, Ain't going to Goa and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlife. Woody Guthrie was dedicated to Theresa May while more poignantly U Don't Dance 2 Techno was dedicated to Mark E Smith of The Fall. Rehab and Hello I'm Johnny Cash both had the crowd singing along word for word.
The crew from Brixton were joined on stage by John Cooper Clarke for their encore of Power in the Blood and Too Sick To Pray, bringing an immense set to a close. I could have listened to them play all night but they had places to be and to be fair the festie organisers had had an amazingly busy weekend and much as no one wants a festival to end it has to some time.
Last year was due to be the last Loop, and it looked as though the Loopallu story itself was going to end, but the die-hard fans told organisers they would be back anyway. They booked their hotels and B&Bs and so the organisers went ahead and booked the bands.
It is the people that make Loopallu, from the couple who dress up in the most amazing costumes every year - this year they were some sort of ball pit pearly king and queen - to The Cowans who play every year, to Nikita from Mutley's Crepes, to the ladies who litter pick the site and run the literary event, to Vic Galloway and Mark Radcliffe and their passionate support for the festival, to the friends for life that everyone has made at this event, the kids that have grown up coming here and the kids that have been born to couples who met here, the marriages and relationships born here, the bands that played here when on paper they were far too big to play a wee festival on the north west coast of Scotland - Mumford and Sons, Franz Ferdinand, Paulo Nutini to name just a few - the pubs in the village, the local residents for being so welcoming, the hard core fans who come at the end of the season year after year, and of course Rob whose idea it all was back at the start and without whom genuinely none of this would have happened.
As someone commented on social media, usually it is a case of 'build it and they will come' but this year it has been a case of 'they will come so they built it'. Two of the biggest hotels in the town are already nearly fully booked for next year, and the dates announced - September 27th and 28th - so it looks like it is on again for 2019. To paraphrase some old saying: Loopallu is dead, long live Loopallu.
latest on this festival
Loopallu 2018 review
festival home page