AS EERILY effective as the happy-clappy soundtrack to 1973 horror classic The Wicker Man was (Youtube “Willows Song”, then try not to shiver at the uneasy pagan connotations), it was never the main attraction in the twisting, ethereal tale. Likewise, with the Wickerman Festival – set amongst the Scottish scenery of the film – the music takes a back seat to the enveloping atmosphere. Fortunately, these guys take it easy on the unspoken menace…
Weaving through the sunshine scenery of rural Dumfries, there is a sense of excitement amongst the rolling hills and blue skies. Pitching up early on Friday afternoon it’s immediately clear why this is regarded as one of the UK’s finest family festival experiences.
There’s a merciful respite to the drab dampness of the British summer thus far. The sun’s fighting through the clouds. There’s many a cool cider in hand and a refreshing number of kids are getting to enjoy the kind of top-notch musical festivity that’s usually reserved for the over-18s. Nature’s beauty begets good-nature. There’s a sense of community you can literally step into.
Indeed, the sodden (both literally and alcoholically) chaos of this month’s T-in the Park could hardly seem a more distant memory.
Even before stepping out in front of the stages it’s clear the organisation and level of thought and attention to detail that’s been put in is something else. With a campsite, car park and well kitted-out arena all within convenient walking distance of each other, there’s a sense of genuinely independent freedom of choice. Families are milling around the garbage-free campsite, music fans have a staggering ten stages of variety to lap up and the casual punters can hit the bars, enjoy the fairground rides or take in some of the more abstract attractions until the (Main) Summerisle Stage’s big names arrive.
They’d be mistaken of course. As a festival, Wickerman has always been ready to embrace the alternative and independent and that’s fed through strongly this year with a particular wealth of punk, acoustic and folk backing up the poppy top-end of the bill and all-night electro of the dance-centric Bass Camp.
Transatlantic, stadium-seeking punks ORANGE kick up a mid-afternoon storm in the Scooter (punk/ska) tent and although the crowd are still gathering themselves together there’s no mistaking the talent and dedication of these youngsters. Setting up stage somewhere between the Technicolor posturing of Green Day and Sex Pistols’ classic-punk verve, there mightn’t be many here this afternoon but it’s easy to believe there will be someday soon. Impressive tour supports with Bowling For Soup and Reel Big Fish may have already seen them court Scottish audience’s attention but this has the air and sound of their best showing yet.
There’s an even more vintage feel for the old-school punk of THE VIBRATORS who tear onto the stage with the piss and vinegar of stalwarts of old. They might look creakier than the temporary floorboards on which they’re pogo-ing but there’s something brilliantly defiant about their never-quit attitude.
They’re upstaged however by the brilliant, up-and-coming ska-punk of THE SKINTS whose soulfully brass-infused melodies delight a growing crowd. Performing with the stance and confidence of a band well aware of their inevitably successful trajectory, they may come off as a better-dressed, more po-faced Sonic Boom Six but there’s the inescapable sense that their story is still at its beginning with depth and twists yet to be revealed.
Leamington Spa blue-collar punk heroes SHARKS are already on their second chapter and their tale seems a real page-turner. Emerging in surprisingly playful form and rolling around the stage at the start of their set – perhaps something to do with the inconsistent teatime numbers – we find an arguably less intense side of the band than might be expected. Still, there’s no doubt of their musical chops. Drawing largely from this year’s No Gods LP they look and sound the part as baton bearers for this generation’s consciously disaffected youth. It’s just a pity this isn’t the best place to make their stand.
Over on the main stage, Radio One favourite JAKE BUG draws some of the first significant numbers of the day. His sparse guitar/voice setup seems oddly exposed in the outdoor setting but he straddles the divide between the Oasis-era Britpop passion and the laddish swagger of the Arctic Monkeys convincingly nonetheless.
Arguably Friday’s best reception is saved for English folk/rock mainstays THE LEVELLERS who throw everything from amusing stage gear to a didgeridoo at their riotous showing. There’s something about good time folk that makes it all the more convincing when delivered by middle-aged men refusing to act their age. It’s a card that’s played heavily, but to wonderful effect. They may not be the trendiest band at the festival but, riding high on the enormous goodwill they’re shown, they get the party started proper.
Meanwhile, in the Solus tent, THE LAFONTAINES are whipping up a storm. Their fantastically accented Scottish rap-rock verges just on the right side of confrontational for this family friendly gathering but their boundless energy and Limp Bizkit via Pick-N-mix sense of good natured, self-aware fun sees them carry through convincingly.
That leaves the SCISSOR SISTERS to kiss the masses goodnight with an almost studio-perfect sounding set of camp pop-rock anthems. The crowd stretches as far as the beer-goggled eye can see as the witching hour approaches and though playing to a field of tired bodies, the irrepressible likes of ‘I Don’t Feel like Dancing‘ see everyone moving in spite of themselves.
The Suns back out come Sunday morning and competition winners GINGER BEARD MEN are opening up the main stage. Sporting some seriously convincing beats they draw in a gaggle of dance-heads who’ve still not made it bed from the night before. They’re let down by less than convincing vocals however and the kind of stage presence of a band more used to playing back bars and bedrooms than outdoor festival shows of this sort. Also, for the beard aficionados there’s a disappointing lack of facial fuzz.
Sunday afternoon’s a great time to check out some of the lesser-viewed attractions onsite, the pick of which must be the garden shed-alike HO DOWN WENDY HOUSE (feat. THE CHIHUAHUAS, THE INISHOWEN CEILIDH BAND and DAVY & THE HOSEBEAST), conveniently located beside the Pimms bar and with plenty of tractor tyres to perch on to enjoy some local music and twiddly-dee rock covers that range from the amusing to the outright kitsch. Special mention too, to the shady refuge of the CINEMA SINESTRE which puts on some colourful fun for children sick of the afternoon sun before rolling out the more sinister likes of Rosemary’s Baby, Alien and the eponymous Wicker Man itself once darkness descends.[nggallery id=93]
Drawing us back into the music, Belfast alt-folk/gothic-music-hall maestro DUKE SPECIAL sets up shop over on the main stage. His deceptively simplistic piano/drum kit setup (if you can call that drum kit simplistic) mightn’t look like all that much, but the depth of character, the shade of mystery and the jaunt of tunes ensure there’re as many new fans drawn in to see what the fuss is all about as there are already converted at the start of his set. He’s even joined by NEWTON FAULKNER for one track before the English folk superstar steps on for his own set. A much more straightforward proposition than DS, he nonetheless stirs up the atmosphere, dropping cuts liberally from this year’s chart-topping ‘Write It On your Skin‘ and charming the guitar-geeks with his deceptively distinctive style.
Dundee’s cheeky monkeys THE VIEW have a huge fanbase here to see them churn out their past and future hits, and though some of their brash showmanship seems to disperse somewhat in the hazy twilight along with sound that seems to draft in a choppy mix there’s no dampening the increasingly raucous atmosphere. They’ve got the tunes, they’ve got the show and they know how to shift through their gears; whether raising the tempo or slipping into a grinning groove they’ve got the young couples kissing, the oldies swaying and everyone else bouncing for a better ‘View’…
Unfortunately, local legends TEXAS lack the vibrancy to top things off with a real high. Sure, they’ve got the kind of hits that everyone’d know even if they hadn’t come from just up the road but they’re songs beginning to show their age and they level things out before the main event proper.
Of course, when it comes, the BURNING OF THE WICKERMAN can hardly be anything but a brilliant climax. Sure, the next morning’s light will reveal the whole thing never burned to the ground but with the chants of “Burn him! Burn him!” there’s enough atmosphere and carried-away excitement to carry a real sense of climax. And for those not smashed out of their skull, packing for the drive home or tucked safely out of the rain in their tent, MIKE SKINNER’s bass-heavy DJ showing provides a fine way to spunk any unspent energy out front of the main stage. The Streets’ frontman may rightfully be better known for his rapping chops but his ability to meld mood melody and madness tonight marks him out as the kind of electronic polymath perfectly capable of riding and transcending fickle trends well into his own longevity.
As if in acknowledgement that the fun’s over, the next morning greets the departing masses with grey skies, heavy winds and clinging drizzle but despite the relatively brief interlude there’s a real sense of satisfaction among the departing punters. That this review encapsulates only a fraction of what was going on should tell you all you need to know. This year’s woven giant may be ashes but the festival will surely resurrect phoenix-like for (hopefully not too much) bigger and better incarnations in the years to come.