‘Well. You’ve been keeping this a secret,’ says Guy Garvey of purveyors of fine festival anthems Elbow at Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival, and he’s half right. This family friendly festival in the north captures the warm, slightly bonkers feeling of Glastonbury but on a delightfully manageable scale. It may be a secret to some, but to festival goers in the know it’s the one to return to year after year.
It does have a home-grown vibe, so might not be as slick as some of the bigger festivals, but it makes up for that with its friendliness and easy going, welcoming atmosphere. It is, as you would expect, uniquely Scottish with home grown talent and trad music finding an easy fit here. Bands such as Torridon with their folk rock, Skerrryvore with their high energy Celtic fusion, and The Dangleberries with their good time Celtic pop covers are welcomed with enthusiasm by an overwhelmingly Scottish audience. But it is far from isolationist, and acts from around the world stop it becoming overly tartan. The bagpipes are here, of course, but so is the sound of the Appalachian Mountains.
There’s enough variety for young and old to find their own festival, whether you your thing is high octane dance music, some laid back folk or the draw of the big acts like headliner Jess Glynne. Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival lets you find your tribe and share your happy place with like-minded friends.
Families will find their Belladrum. In the wonderfully child friendly Walled Garden, among the crafts and activities for the small people. New this year is the Science Dome, or Boffinarium, where all ages can find out more about science and technology. Festival-goers can observe our nearest star, the Sun, through a special solar telescope courtesy of the Highland Astronomical Society.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh brought Dr Heidi Burdett to talk about Scotland’s answer to the Barrier Reef. Her fascinating talk about a little known marine ecosystem includes some hard hitting facts about climate change.
While it would be easy to while away the weekend whisky tasting, practising yoga or learning the finer arts of Burlesque, music is really the heart of Belladrum Tartan Heart. It is the ideal place to find new talent, and the Grassroots and Seedlings stages often showcase the stars of the future. A fine example is Stephanie Cheape who returns to a bigger stage this year, and surely will be one to watch.
As well as up and coming talent there is always the big names to draw the crowds.
Johnny Marr brings his legendary guitar skills and some well-beloved Smith’s memories to the main stage. He is the acceptable face of the Smiths now Morrissey has become less of an anti-hero and more of an embarrassing elderly relative. The covers in the set are nothing special, but the Smiths favourites such as This Charming Man and Please Please Please, Let Me Get What I Want are brilliantly rendered. Indulging in some miserabilist nostalgia and its associated pathos is great fun when you’re enjoying it in a sunny field, and these songs at the hands of Marr and friends still ring true.
Dodgy provide a laid back, feel good performance with plenty of chunky guitar. Staying Out For The Summer is, as expected, the ideal track for the sunny afternoon set.
Tom Odell and his Absolute Unit of a piano work magic in the garden. He is clearly having an epic time, happy to return to ‘the best festival in the world.’ ‘This was the first festival we ever played,’ he reminisces, and gives a performance of incredible virtuosity and energy. He raises the bar with his vocals so loud and long they could practically be heard from space. He takes the audience from laid back to bouncing, back down with an emotional version of Piano Man, then slams the tempo back up for hit song Another Love. His immense talent unites a field of festival fans of all ages and is one of the best received performances of the weekend.
An even more excited audience is the smaller, but noisier one that gathers for YouTube sensation Dodie. The UK’s answer to Sigrid, this delightful young woman brings a fresh, open expression with her honest, bright and catchy pop tunes. Her excellent performance is backed by stylish strings. She gives the best cover of Sweet Caroline I have ever heard, sung sweetly and joyfully with enthusiastic backing from the chorus of the crowd.
A defining festival moment is the barefoot dancing on the grass to the fabulously funky Swampfog. This jazzy Edinburgh seven piece capture the party mood in the sunshine perfectly, bringing a taste of New Orleans jazz to the Highlands. Another deliverer of feel good vibe is the Oxbow Lake Band whose brassy brass brings a bluesy dance party to the Icehouse stage.
A firm festival favourite is the phenomenon that is Colonel Mustard and the Dijon 5. For those who embrace the mustard, this is an all-encompassing experience with audience participation to the max. Uniquely, hilariously quirky, they delight the kids of all ages, and exhort the men to get ‘tap’s aff’ for ‘air conditioning’ in the hot Saturday sun. If you don’t take part in sublimely silly Crossing the Road and does-what-it-says-on-the-tin catchy number Bouncy Ball you are dead inside and there’s no hope for you.
The big draw this year was Glasgow lad Lewis Capaldi. Thanks to this year’s chart-topping debut album and sterling performance at Glastonbury and TRNSMT festivals, he is greeted with rapturous chants and ecstatic cheers before he sings a note. Such is the demand to see “Chewy” Capaldi that crowd control gets dicey, not pleasant for the family vibe and a warning to the new organisers that popular as it is, selling more tickets would be a mistake.
His performance is everything the crowd could have hoped for. The songs are strong, the melodies infectious and the lyrics are honestly emotional. His patter with the crowd is amiable and self-effacing despite the level of excitement. Out of this unassuming bloke comes the most marvellous vocal performance, with his heartfelt lyrics delivered impeccably by a tight band. Highlights are the euphoric Grace, emotional Hold Me While You Wait, and of course the anthem of heartbreak that’s taking the world by storm, Someone You Loved, to close the set. The Garden stage area is packed capacity and the singing of the audience to these well-loved songs is delightful to be part of.
In the current political climate, as well the current climate climate, it seems more important than ever to grab every opportunity for joyful celebration and a sense of togetherness. Belladrum Tartan Heart is an opportunity worth seizing.