Belladrum Tartan Heart has become something of a masterclass in putting on a festival

Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival 2016 review

published: Wed 10th Aug 2016

around the festival site

Thursday 4th to Saturday 6th August 2016
Belladrum Estate, Beauly, Inverness-shire, IV4 7BA, Scotland MAP
£137 for 3 days - SOLD OUT
daily capacity: 16500
last updated: Wed 13th Jul 2016

It was lucky 13 for the Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival near Beauly on the outskirts of Inverness which this year attracted a record 18,000 music lovers over the course of three days at the weekend.

With 100s of acts over a dozen venues across an expanded site, Bella, as it affectionately known, has come a long way since its first event in 2004, and, it could be argued, is now Scotland's premier large scale festival.

Organisers are constantly developing and evolving the event and the site and their investment seems to be paying off as Bella continues to attract new fans as well as those who have been going every year since the start. New innovations, which this year included a brand new main stage, ensure that regulars are always treated to something new and that new Bella goers have their minds blown by the sheer variety and creativity of everything that is going on.

The festival sold out in record time once again, even with the increase in the number of tickets available again this year. Disappointment and disillusionment with T in the Park following its move from Balado to Strathallan Estate and the problems many experienced there caused significant numbers of T in the Parkers to try something new this year and Belladrum was it.

In addition, the postponement of the Wickerman festival in Dumfries and Galloway this year left a hole in many festival goers' summer season which they filled with a date at Bella.

To cater for the increase in numbers, and to alleviate some of the traffic chaos that saw many festival goers spend several hours in their cars trying to get on site last year, the gates and campsites opened at 8am on the Thursday, while the arena opened at noon. There were also regular buses from Inverness and a new shuttle bus service, and all their efforts seemed to pay off as the majority of people enjoyed a clear run into the site.

The ever growing popularity of the event has led to the expansion of the site in recent years - most obviously with the inclusion of the Walled Garden a few years ago and the caravan and campervan site - which this year even encompassed a hastily mown crop field. There was also a dedicated VW campervan section for nostalgia fans.

The area between the Hothouse Stage and Mother's Ruin - which this year saw the DJs housed in an aeroplane cockpit attached to an old stone wall - and the Seedlings Stage was also opened out, and although the site often felt busy, with long queues for toilets and foot outlets at peak times, it never felt too busy or overcrowded.

This year, in line with it being lucky for some, the theme for the 13th Bella was superstition and all things mystical. There was a magikal woodland in the Walled Garden offering tarot readings, stalls and fairy make overs, while over on the other side of the Garden Stage was the new Ice House Jazz 'n' Blues stage that - also in keeping with the superstition theme - had been designed to look like a New Orleans street scene and which featured performances from the likes of Scooty And The Skyhooks, Barracuda Boogie Band, and Far Bay Bluesblowers.

As ever with Belladrum, there was far too much to do and see in one weekend. Danny MacAskill's Drop and Roll was back and entertained children and adults alike, even in the somewhat damper conditions on the Saturday. There was a huge zip slide down one side of the arena, a fun fair, complete with a helter skelter, a big wheel and dodgems and the Tir nA nOg children's area with craft sessions, theatre, animal handling and pony rides, music and song, sand art, puppetry, knitting and crochet, circus workshops, a carousel and even an ice rink and a mobile library.

You could spend a month wandering about between Madam Fifi's Dance Parlour, the Burke and Hare stage and the Free Range stage in the Walled Garden, to the Venus Fly Trap and Snap Dragon tents in the arena, catching glimpses of street entertainment as you go, but still not see and experience everything.

The Verb Garden was back with a wide-ranging literary programme which this year was curated by the National Library of Scotland Scots Scriever Hamish Macdonald. The programme featured a slam poetry competition as well as talks from everyone from Billy Kay, one of the great chroniclers of the Scots language, and Hebridean novelist Kevin Macneil, to up close and personal interviews with Larry Love from Alabama 3 and Chuck Hawthorne, an ex US marine corps soldier and Americana songwriter from Texas.

This year also saw the first annual Bella Rebellion lecture on the Jacobite era at the Verb Garden, debates on how far Scotland's hills should go back to nature, a talk about the crossover between Gaelic song and Indian music following a recent joint project, East Meets West, the much-loved late night sing-along movies featuring the Sound of Music, Mamma Mia and Frozen, and talks about the myths and legends of the hills, Nessie, and a play about Victorian occultist Aleister Crowley.

around the festival site: Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival 2016

Despite the packed programme, Bella still retained its relaxed vibe and there is still something magic about it even though it has doubled in size in the last ten years. Over the course of the weekend we spotted the wrestlers chatting with the stars of Fun Box, there were gorillas wondering around the site, two very well to-do ladies on a camel, kelpies, witches and a giant bagpiper with a slightly naughty dog. Many a social media photo since the weekend has been captioned with 'only at Bella'.

But back to Thursday. The main stage entertainment kicked off in the afternoon with performances from Woodentooth and there was a full day's line up with The Retrophones featuring Colin Steele, Perthshire's The New Madrids with Stephanie Urbana Jones, local heroes Torridon, Main Street Blues and wordsmith and rapper Tiggs Da Author.

Queues at the campervan site for getting bands for access to the arena were moving much more quickly than last year although by the time we had arrived and got set up and caught up with old friends it was still early evening before we got into the arena.

So first band of the day for us then was Gleadhraich, who got the reeling started early at the Grassroots stage. The four-piece celtic rock band from Carnoustie played classic hits such as I'm a Believer, My Girl and Teenage Kicks, getting the crowd in the party mood and ready for performances from Hoodja, The Leonard Jones Potential, and Grassroots Thursday night legends Rhythm 'N Reel.

We left before the end of Gleadhraich's set however to catch our first main stage band of the day, beatboxer and multi-vocalist Beardyman making his debut at Belladrum and bringing along his 'dream team' - an elite band of improvisers who do not write material and make everything up as they go along.

Over the course of the next hour, the beat box champion and musical inventor and his dream team created a set that included freestyle hip hop and beatbox inspired by suggestions from the Belladrum crowd, including - again in keeping with the superstition theme - 'Something like a wizard'. Beardyman told the crowd that they had come to make some music for them and it was an impressive performance that certainly got those gathered jumping along to the Belladrum Bounce.

Thursday's main stage headline act was those purveyors of glam rock, The Darkness. There is not much that is dark about these guys at all, just an upbeat, feel good, old fashioned rock 'n' roll vibe and they delivered that in bucketloads.

The Darkness: Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival 2016

There were plenty of rock 'n' roll poses, falsetto high notes, guitar solos and climatic song finishes throughout their set, which comprised all the band's best known hits such as Get Your Hands Off My Woman, One Way Ticket and of course I Believe In A Thing Called Love as well as Givin' Up and Friday Night from their debut album Permission to Land.

Charismatic singer Justin Hawkins rocked a shimmery metallic one-piece jump suit and worked the crowd into something of a frenzy, before bringing things right back to earth with his well-spoken, polite and almost self-deprecating chat in between songs, something of a contrast to the flamboyant stage persona who stands on his head and leads the audience by clapping his legs together.

It was also a very different offering to last year's Thursday night headliners, The Proclaimers, but the entertaining - and let's not forget Brit Award winning - men from Lowestoft and Perthshire (none other than bassist Frankie Poullain) certainly brought the crowds in and left them all smiling.

Friday's line up was a belter. We always say we would go to Bella whatever, that it isn't about the music, it's about the craic, but this year it was absolutely about the music. And the craic. And the sun was shining and it was warm on site. It was going to be an awesome day.

Sinderins: Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival 2016

First up for us was Dundee band Sinderins, formerly known as Anderson, McGinty, Webster, Ward and Fisher, at the Hothouse Stage. They were last at Belladrum a couple of years ago when they stormed the Grassroots Stage under their previous moniker and this year's performance was even better.

They opened with songs from their new album, released this year, including All Join Hands, Fayre, Absolutely Nothing, and For Every Road A Traveller. The Hothouse Stage was full and this amazingly talented group of multi-instrumentalists impressed once again with their impossible to pigeon-hole and beautifully crafted tunes. Combining elements of blues, country and rock, they create songs and stories that sweep you along on a wave of emotion that it is impossible not be sucked into.

It was a set that went by far too quickly, but the climax of their final tune, The Pigeon Song, with vocalist Dave Webster holding a hugely impressive note for just about the longest time I have ever seen him do it, made the audience go weak at the knees, sent shivers up their spines and even brought a tear to eye of some. There was a long queue of people waiting to buy their new CD and they would be a hard act to follow.

We popped down to catch The LaFontaines on the main stage who were back at Belladrum for the third year in a row. The five-piece from Motherwell have a very vocal and enthusiastic following and drew a big mid-afternoon crowd, delighting the fans again with their indie-tinged rap rock and sing-along choruses. They didn't need much encouragement but tunes such as Under the Storm, Class, Paper Chase and Window Seat all got the crowd jumping.

Then it was time for another of Dundee's finest, Be Charlotte, who was also back at Bella for a second gig. Super talented teenager Charlotte has an amazing voice and has grown in confidence since her Tartan Heart debut on the Free Range Stage a few years ago. Performances at T in the Park the last couple of years and a host of other festivals and gigs have seen the band hone their set, which included tracks Discover, Drawing Windows, Bullets, Machines that Breathe, People, One Drop and Too Late, and they impressed the Seedlings Stage audience with their thoughtful lyrics and performance, creating damn good vibes all round.

Bombskare: Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival 2016

It was back to the main stage for Bombskare for us, who are officially the UK's Best Part-time Band don't you know. They started as they meant to go on, blowing the Garden Stage crowd away from the off with Freedom 35, Catastrof**k and Do All Dogs Go to Heaven. In fact they actually blew the power at the main stage with their full-on onslaught of ferocious ska.

Power Restored and Crime of the Century featured special guest appearances from the fiddle player and accordionist from Scottish band Tweed, and Lloyd Knibb, which is dedicated to the drummer from the Skatellites who Bombskare hail as their patron saint, Where Eagles Dare, Walk Like An Egyptian, Done No Mattter What and Toxic had the crowd skanking in the terraces, undeterred by the rain. There were happy smiling faces all round after their hour-long set with many new converts to the Bombskare family.

It was Hothouse Stage all the way for the rest of the night for us with Dreadzone, and the mighty Alabama 3 on the bill and a bigger attraction to this reviewer at least than Super Furry Animals, and Two Door Cinema Club.

Dreadzone were last at Bella in 2008 when they delighted the afternoon Garden Stage crowd with their eclectic fusion of dub, reggae and techno. They are a band that always makes you smile and feel better about the world and this gig was no exception.

Dreadzone: Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival 2016

From the set opener of Life, Love and Unity followed by Rise Up - "for all that's going on in the world" - this was a set that was made for restoring souls and raising spirits. Vocalist Spee was back in the hot seat following a much-needed operation on his knee and led the crowd in the dub anthems of Zion Youth, Little Britain and of course Captain Dread.

A fair proportion of those who turned out hadn't seen them before and it was good to see that the word of dread continues to spread even now, over 20 years after seminal album Second Light was first released. It's true what they say: "Dreadzone taking over, we make it better".

Now it's been a while since I've seen the Alabama 3's ultra-violet full band set - the last time was also at the Hothouse Stage a couple of years ago and doesn't really count as we were outside the packed out tent and only heard rather than saw the set.

This time we stayed after Dreadzone to make sure we still had a spot for those purveyors of country acid house sweet joy and were glad we did. The tent was packed out yet again with an estimated 2000 people waiting to be drawn into Larry Love and D Wayne's evangelical church of rock 'n' roll.

Alabama 3: Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival 2016

From the opening songs, including Up Above My Head, Power in the Blood, Bulletproof, Mansion on the Hill, Woke Up This Morning and Work It (All Night Long), as well as newer material, they whipped the crowd into a frenzy of good old fashioned hands in the air dancing.

For a band as prolific as Alabama 3 and one with such a large back catalogue of popular tunes, they were never going to be able to squeeze everyone of their anthems into a one hour set, but they packed a lot in. John Prine's Speed of the Sound of Loneliness and A3's Too Sick to Pray had the crowd singing along word for word before the closing number of Hypo Full of Love (12 Step Plan) brought the set to a rousing end.

My festival would have been pretty much complete at that point, and as Sunday looked increasingly damp and the rain got heavier and heavier, it felt as though the damn good vibes may have peaked. Not to worry though, a wander round the Walled Garden and the Heilan Fields, soaking up the atmosphere proved therapeutic, as did some scran from the Food From Argyll stalls. Everywhere you turn at Belladrum you spot something new, or there is something that makes you smile - it is a beautiful thing.

But what really gave me my mojo back was the absolutely immense set from Colonel Mustard and Dijon Five on the Hothouse Stage. For the uninitiated, well, it's difficult to describe the sheer energy or or put into words the experience of a Colonel Mustard show.

Colonel Mustard and Dijon Five: Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival 2016

The Glasgow-based self-styled "shiny discoball hat-wearing, ultimate genre hopping, twisted festival live stage machine" packed out the tent in scenes reminiscent of their sell-out show at the legendary Scottish venue The Barrowlands earlier this year. Although they acknowledged that part of the attraction may have been that their set was inside a tent and the rain was pretty heavy, by the end of the set there were many more converts to the Yellow Movement.

They stormed through sing-along tunes such as Capturado, International Sex Hero, Dance Off, Gay Icon and Cross the Road, with the Colonel himself and the Dijancer leading the collective of musicians and introducing the crowd to the movement's abiding principles of laughing until you no longer know what it is to hate, releasing your soul, losing your inhibitions, determining your own fate and forgetting the distractions.

Red-headed audience members were invited on stage for Ginger Girl, there were guest vocals from Butterscotch from Inverness outfit Spring Break on set-closer These Are Not The Drugs (You Are Looking For), there was crowd surfing, a giant inflatable unicorn, balloons, glitter balls and traffic cones - this set pretty much had it all.

Colonel Mustard and Dijon Five: Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival 2016

The Dijon enthusiasm for and genuine belief in the power of music, peace and love is properly infectious and by the end of their 45-minute set I swear the world was a better place with 2000 people singing "Everyone's happy, everyone's smiling, no one here is sad any more." But don't just take my word for it, the best way to understand it is to actually experience it for yourselves.

Next stop was Edgar Road, an alternative rock band from Elgin, who were playing the Bella Bar stage. The five-piece band played to a dedicated and appreciative audience who braved a heavy downpour to see them. They were rewarded with an accomplished performance from these talented musicians whose set comprised a mix of covers and original material, including All About Everything - the title of their new album - Who Turned The Lights On, Stormy Weather, Fleetwood Mac's Everywhere, Light of Love, Kollide and Friday Night.

We had a pitstop for food, which included a visit to the strawberry stall, where we enjoyed tasty fresh fruit with some cheeky chocolate sauce to the strains of Errol Linton - often hailed as the king of British blues - who was performing old school blues and reggae rhythms on the Grassroots stage.

And we had been hoping to catch most of CoCo and the Butterfields' set on the Grassroots stage having seen them at Bella a couple of years ago, before heading to the main stage for Wilko Johnson, but unfortunately they were running late. We did manage the first couple of songs, the first of which was an amazing cover of Nina Simone's Feeling Good that showcased singer Dulcima's beautiful and powerful voice.

CoCo and the Butterfields: Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival 2016

This band of buskers from Canterbury play a mix of folk, pop and rap, combining fiddles, a brass section, guitars, a banjo and a beatbox into a new genre they describe as 'fip fop'. They have supported the likes of Seasick Steve, Wheatus and Scouting for Girls and I would have loved to have been able to stay for more of their show.

But it was Wilko Johnson man. A real legend, and true survivor. The Dr Feelgood guitarist and former Blockhead who has been credited as being one of the founding influences of British punk, who has beaten cancer, defied the odds when he was given just months to live four years ago, and recently starred in blockbuster television series Game of Thrones.

The instantly recognisable chords of his unique style rang out from the Garden Stage and he treated the audience to Going Back Home, Roxette, Back In The Night, She Does It Right and others during his hour long set, making a lot of people very happy indeed.

Public Service Broadcasting: Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival 2016

We also needed to squeeze in a bit of Public Service Broadcasting, before main stage headliners Madness took to the stage, having been impressed by their performance at Loopallu a few years ago. Another genre-defying outfit, Public Service Broadcasting play live over samples and footage from you've guessed it, old public service broadcasts, to great, almost hypnotic, effect.

Their debut album Inform-Educate-Entertain was released three years ago to critical acclaim and their set at Bella included favourite tracks from both that - including Spitfire - and their 2015 follow up album, The Race For Space.

So then it was back to the main stage for Saturday night headliners Madness. What can you say about Madness that hasn't already been said before? The veterans of the two tone ska scene, who first got together some 40 years ago, attracted one of the biggest crowds the Garden Stage has ever seen with people of all ages singing and dancing along to their many hits.

Madness: Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival 2016

From their set opener Embarrasment, quickly followed up by The Prince, NW5, My Girl and One Step Beyond to new material from their new album, Can't Touch Us Now, due for release in October, the band and the audience were one big happy skanking crowd.

They played The Sun and the Rain just as the rain started to fall again, but no one cared about the rain. The crowd sang along word for word to House of Fun, Baggy Trousers, Our House and It Must Be Love before being joined on stage by Wilko Johnson and Norman Watt-Roy for a rousing encore of Madness and Night Boat to Cairo.

There were so many gigs of the weekend this weekend, so many best bits and so many highlights - Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5, Sinderins, Bombskare, Dreadzone, Alabama 3 would all be on my dream line up and here they all were. Madness impressed, the food was first rate, the traffic managed - even leaving the site on Sunday was relatively stress free in comparison to previous years - there was next to no aggro, there was entertainment and education for people of all ages with generations of the same family all enjoying the delectable delights of Bella, the litter was picked, even the rain held off until the Saturday so the site didn't get too muddy. It was just about perfect in every way.

Over the years, Bella has become something of a masterclass in putting on a festival and the team behind making it the success that it is, many of whom have been involved since the start, are to be commended. If festivals of this size and calibre of act are your thing then it is hard to see why you would go anywhere else in Scotland at the moment.

It is a homegrown success story and home is where the tartan heart is.

review by: Clare Damodaran

photos by: Clare Damodaran

Thursday 4th to Saturday 6th August 2016
Belladrum Estate, Beauly, Inverness-shire, IV4 7BA, Scotland MAP
£137 for 3 days - SOLD OUT
daily capacity: 16500
last updated: Wed 13th Jul 2016

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