With the bulk of the summer UK festival circuit well under way, the last weekend of July saw the Wickerman Festival take to the Galloway fields in Dundrennan Farm, Kirkcudbright. Relatively unknown amongst the ‘popular’ festival connoisseurs, the Wickerman (believe it or not) is in its 8th running year. In the past it has been described as being similar to an early Glastonbury, particularly due to its reputation for being one of the most family-friendly UK festivals. With such a wide proposed variety of music and culture on offer, and being such a huge fan of the 1973 cult classic ‘The Wicker Man,’ I was keen to truly experience this festival as best I could.
Friday kicked off with Aberdeen pop/rock trio, The Xcerts. Their recent rise in popularity has had me intrigued for the past few months and I was curious to see how they’d fare in front of a festival audience. They played an excellent set to an admirably sized crowd, with hits like ‘Crisis in the Slow Lane’ and ‘Just go Home,’ provoking a sing-along amongst most of their fans. For such a small range of instruments, they pack a huge, remarkable sound and given the quality of songs and energy devoted to this performance, they look hot favorites for much bigger festival slots next year.
Billy Bragg appeared on the ‘Summerisle’ (main) stage shortly after and provided the modest-sized onlookers with an hour-long set of some of his back-catalogue classics. However, even having only stayed for the 1st half, the solo, electric guitar set did become a little monotonous. Despite this, the crowd responded gleefully and the performance sat well amongst the diverse range of artists the weekend had to offer.
The half hour mark in Bragg’s set saw a dash up the hill and back to the ‘Solus’ (new bands) tent to catch the beginning of Edinburgh-based 4-piece, Meursault. For me, this band stole the weekend. Having seen lead vocalist Neil Pennycock perform solo before, I was eager to see him recreate the warmth and sheer brilliance of their debut album ‘Kissing with Tongues/Pissing on Bonfires’ full band. Meursault, at times, posses a stark and haunting quality, almost akin to a post-millennium Radiohead, coupled with a few dozen folk instruments, they grant such a diverse and intriguing sound it is almost hard to contain your emotion whilst watching. By far one of the most interesting emerging Scottish talents today.
Another sprint, this time back down the hill, saw the start of Scottish indie-folk favorites, Idlewild. Judging by the crowd reaction it was a welcomed return for the quintet, who, needless to say, have been relatively quiet for the past few years. A perfect blend of classic hits like, ‘You Held the World in Your Arms,’ and, ‘American English,’ alongside a touch of new material saw Idlewild proving that they are still going strong. Their new album is set for release sometime in the next few months and I for one, particularly judging by this performance, await with bated breath.
A brief 15 minutes of Glasgow’s finest We Were Promised Jetpacks confirmed my suspicions; this band are getting bigger by the second. Around 200 fans flocked to the Solus tent to see the quartet play their trademark punchy indie-pop. Undeniably, great things are imminent for this band as, fresh from releasing their debut album, ‘These Four Walls,’ they play a confident set, with the likes of ‘Quiet Little Voices’ going down a storm.
As night falls over the Kirkcudbrightshire fields, The Human League take to the main stage. As far as headliners go, they easily tick every box. Shuffling through their 80’s anthems, I couldn’t help but dutifully bop along, with the likes of, ‘Fascination’, ‘Mirror Man,’ and ‘Don’t you want me’ being particular highlights. Key-tar donned members and brilliant-white coated keyboards only enhance their trademark synth-pop which proves just why Human League are at the top of such a diverse bill. They finish with Phil Oakley’s 1984 classic about a man, a woman and a computer locked in a tragic love triangle (I kid you not!) ‘Electric Dreams.’ The crowd roar in appreciation and the lights go down for the 1st day of Wickerman.
Panic strikes as I head into the Solus tent on the Saturday, when I discover that my first stop of the day, Glasgow pop giants The Velcro Quartet, have pulled out. As a matter of principle I choose to stand my ground and embrace the act who would replace them. This particular replacement came in the form of ‘More from Jim’, a 7-piece ska outfit, hailing from Annan. A 4–piece brass section, slick, 2-tone style grooves and a few punk covers thrown in for good measure (including a cracking rendition of Walking on Sunshine), More From Jim became one of the most entertaining acts of the weekend. A huge crowd had assembled by the end of their set, and deservedly so. Here’s hoping we hear more from them in the future.
Another such band who have remained relatively quiet over the past few years (despite the recent release of their third album) were the evening’s headliners, The Zutons. Apparently rushed for time they played a strong, hour long set of solid hits, which had the crowd swinging from the proverbial rafters. Having been dropped by their label (Sony BMG) at the beginning of the year, it has been far from an easy ride for the Liverpudlians, however the likes of ‘Valerie,’ and ‘you will, you won’t,’ showcased why The Zutons still deserve to be pulling large crowds and playing major festivals. Despite their almost flawless set, the lack of a second guitarist (ex-lead guitarist Boyan Chowdhury quit the band in 2007) left frontman Dave McCabe with a little too much to do, which let the strength of the songs suffer, albeit marginally.
The evening concludes with the ceremonial burning of the Wickerman. And what a conclusion it is. Every man, woman and child on site gather on the banking to watch the 60ft masterpiece set alight. It was a spectacle I felt almost unprepared for, and, as the flames crept up the giant structure (this year designed to resemble Scotland’s ‘Homecoming’) it finally occurred to me just how special this little festival is. There is such a quaint charm about the ‘Wickerman’ which sets it apart from its mainstream counterparts and, for me, this one moment highlighted that notion. The cheers from the crowd as ‘Rabbie Burns’ finally catches aflame seems frighteningly similar to the famous last scene of Robin Hardy’s cult masterpiece and literally (or, ironically) sends chills up my spine and shows me, and everyone around, what a little treasure this experience is.
Now, I’m not prepared to lie to you good people. After the steady consumption of a crate of lager and bottle of gin between me + friend, needless to say the rest of the evening was a bit of a blur. However, once the flames had died down, a drunken surprise appeared onstage in the form of Utah Saints. Playing an hour and a half of sample –fuelled remixes from every genre (ie- Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting) was just what Dr Tennents and Dr Gordons had ordered. A perfect way to round off the weekend.
Supposedly, the Wickerman festival motto is, “It’s better than it needs to be!” and, joking aside, there is some validity in this; it was like nothing I could have expected it to be. Granted, the lineup seems relatively basic and its attendance figures are far from groundbreaking, however, the local and almost ‘hidden’ feel of this festival is what makes it so special. Genuinely, I cannot fault it and would urge anyone thinking of perhaps a break from the hustle and bustle (and neds) of your T in the Parks and your V Festivals to give this a try. From start to finish, The Wickerman showcased just why the smaller festival need never be overlooked and in many respects, just why it is significantly growing in popularity as the years pass
Words: Jonathyn Smith (The French Wives)
Pics: Aoife Welsh