From the second we entered the sleepy Perthshire town of Aberfeldy, through a scenic valley road which stirs the heart into visions of ye Olde Scotland, we were thrown right into a crash course in what to expect of Aberfeldy Festival. It isn’t like the others. No wise-cracking hipsters await you at the gates and instead we’re greeted by friendly, open-faced locals, totally willing to open up their doors and hearts to the crazy, folky carnival of Aberfeldy Festival.
And thus, the stars were out on Friday night, all right. Namely Star Wheel Press, who turned in a gorgeous set – frontman Ryan Hannigan doubly-responsible for the weekend, as he’s one of the main organisers. Withered Hand follow, suffering slightly from sound issues; dogged by a noisy crowd who chatted and shouted and interrupted some of the quiet bits.
The expanse of Meursault’s Neil Pennycook’s voice is insane. It fills up and soaks into every nook of the hall with ease. “You are expanding your horizons” he wails, underplayed by feverish bursts of cold and hot/guitar-cello interplay. They seem to have mastered the art of being the most intimate band of the festival, but also easily the loudest. Dropping in some serious shards of white noise, their balance of supporting strings and electronic anthemics never once overshadows the power of the songs themselves.
An unexpected squall of feedback mutates into ‘Newboy’ then ‘The Mill’. Noisy clouds of fuzz disperse before the yearning, defiant roar of ‘Dearly Distracted’. They leave us deafened, dazzled and dumbstruck, and they’re certainly, in my eyes, the most exciting band of the festival.
Onto Moffat and Wells. Standing centre-stage, Moffat’s on drum duty, adding extra authority to the affair. He rattles through the album at an efficient clip, drawing breath only to throw in a curveball cover of Bananarama’s ‘Cruel Summer’ with typical wry humour. It is November, after all. And his between song ad-libs remain as dry as a bone – “That song’s about death. This one’s about shagging” – whilst he spills out his guts to us in song. Switching between the high-energy snark of ‘Glasgow Jubilee’ to gorgeously intimate pieces like ‘The Copper Top’, the collaboration between Aidan Moffat and Bills Wells is a fruitful one – and long may it continue. We cap it all off with a typically rapturous, typically well-received set from Chemikal Underground’s The Phantom Band.
With bleary eyes from the night before, we move onto Saturday. With an afternoon of acoustic performances and pottering around market stalls, warmed by hot chocolate and some thoughtfully-provided fires, the spirit of Aberfeldy truly came into its own. For Withered Hand, it was a real chance to shine. They came out at the acoustic tent with the full force of their wispy brilliance. (Special kudos to the kick-ass cellist with riot-grrl stickers all over her instrument.) Despite things going out of tune in the formidable cold, they stuck to their manifesto of “some songs played with friends and shared with strangers”. The audience was held spell-bound as they ran through a mixture of classics and new offerings, and there was nothing but a heart-felt “aww” when Dan Wilson forgot the lyrics of a spanking new song and had to begin again to rescue it. The unveiling of “Heart Heart” was the single greatest moment of the festival – echoing a folky Plastic Bertrand - and sounds like it could be something of a breakthrough single.
Saturday night’s musical selections were made by Rebus author and Scottish music aficionado Iain Rankin. And he chose wisely. It’s a Fence-heavy affair, with singer-songwriter Gummi Bako delivering a fine, surprising set. Resplendent in gold lame, Fence demi-god Pictish Trail was joined by The Massacre Cave, a thrash band from the unlikely location of Eigg. Offering up mind-melding mutations of electronic beats and bass, with ‘Secret Sounds’ and ‘The Handstand Crowd’, they’ve captured the brave new sound of Fence. They have a bass player with a plectrum bindi. They can do naught but succeed. They close on ‘Brow Beaten’ – beefed up considerably from the bleepy Silver Columns original by supplementing synth with geetar.
From that, we move to the gorgeous fragility of Rozi Plain. Wearing a four-leaf clover for luck, her lilting vocals soar over ‘Friend City’ and ‘Cold Tap’, whilst Pictish Trail and a selection of friends provide keening backing vocals and instrumental support. There’s a quick change of pace with the art-rock of FOUND, who offer us a pounding beat, an unexpected grasp of funk and a dance-off possibly unseen in the lifetime of Aberfeldy Town Hall.
But after all, we must make way for the King. King Creosote began with an invitation to “let all your tensions go” before launching into ‘A Month of Firsts’. He and the crowd roar through ‘Not One Bit Ashamed’ before he asks “Do you want to hear some really crap, white disco?” bouncing into ‘Doubles Underneath’. A stunning ‘Nooks’ and ‘John Taylor’s Month Away’ provide the songcraft that only Kenny Anderson could, and he does, at some point, reappropriate the chorus from That’s Entertainment. But I can’t remember when. A super-extended version of The Happy Song is the closer, as the clapping of the chorus grows into a huge stomp-a-long bounce where the entire floor of Aberfeldy Town Hall starts to go.
Fuelled by whiskey cocktails generously poured by festival sponsors Dewar’s, it was two days of magic, in a beautiful little town, delivered with the unmistakeable charm of the best in Scottish music. T who?
Words by Marianne Gallagher