We head down to East Kirkcarswell to soak up the tradition at Wickerman Festival 2015…
South Scotland’s biggest festival looked in doubt following the sudden passing of event-director Jamie Gilroy late last year, but with the help of Jamie’s daughter Jennie Camm, over 15,000 passionate revellers and a raft of international superstars including The Waterboys, Example and Tom Odell, it proved to be the iconic gathering’s strongest showing yet.
Here, Sam Law counts down his thirteen moments that defined Wickerman 2015.
1. The Waterboys
Veterans of over thirty years, the Celtic-Rock legends mightn’t be quintessentially down-with-the-kids festival headliners but they slot in atop Friday’s main stage with well-worn ease. Harking back to the festival’s earthy roots, the old-fashioned Scots-American-Anglo-Irish showmen dispense a stream of classics like Fisherman’s Blues, Glastonbury Song and The Whole of the Moon. Midnight comes and goes, soundtracked by a multi-generational singalong. The afternoon’s long-forgotten rainfall gets danced into the flattened grass. And the early-hours chill seems dulled by the whisky-warm musicianship. Even curmudgeonly frontman Mike Scott seems on fine form, dedicating I Can See Elvis to “The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll – not Kanye West!” Lovely stuff.
Glasgow “post-electro” upstarts Errors bring their pulsating atmospherics to the Scooter tent as dusk darkens into night. Signed to Mogwai’s Rock Action records, they share plenty of their native forbears’ cerebral style, but they’re not afraid of adding a few bursts of synth-pop colour these days, too. Heads get bobbed. Shoes get gazed. Down the front some of the wilder arms even get waved. More importantly, however, the future of Scottish post-rock/electro/whatever gets to spread its wings in an arena befitting the Celtic-modernist imagination on show.
Atmospheric folkies Woodwife ably close out Friday’s Ingrid Pitt stage with their “baroque beats and gnarled guitars” weaving in amongst warm traditional texture and an earthy sense of performance. All autumnal dreadlocks and wintry mournfulness, their sound fits well with the far-past-midnight setting. Still, there’s an underlying ember-warmth to their songwriting that ensures the small-hours chill doesn’t creep too far into the bones.
4. The Trongate Rum Riots
1am in the acoustic tent tends to be a boozy affair at the best of times, but as the aptly-named Trongate Rum Riots storm the low stage, the crowd visibly transitions from merry to well and truly lashed. Beery dancers smash the dancefloor into a cheery mosh. Frontman Zez Jeopardy sports the happily haggard look of a man who’s been on it since this time yesterday. And the tentful of late-night survivors whoop, holler and jig themselves exhausted, looking as if tomorrow might never come.
5. Eddie Halliwell
Heading up the always-impressive Wickerman dance tent, Wigan international house and trance superstar Eddie Halliwell pulls of a similar trick to the aforementioned Trongate Rum Riots – only with the audience’s khaki hemp hoodies exchanged for neon lycra and tankards of ale swapped out for whirling glow-sticks. It’s a tangible display of the eclecticism on show – and, aided by video screens, an earthquaking PA and a tent that appears to be filled with unlit Chinese lanterns, the rave-kids party hard enough not to let their side down.
Beginning to suffer from final-day festival fatigue? Desperate for an energy-spiking cure? Better find some Ska, obviously! Glasgow nine-piece Esperanza might’ve gained some sorrowful celebrity in the past few years as the band onstage during the Clutha Vaults disaster that claimed ten lives in late 2013, but anyone who’s ever caught them live knows their currency isn’t sadness; it’s unadulterated joy. And thirty minutes of brass-infused musical sunshine and sweat-soaked skanking after descending into the shade of the Scooter tent, there’s not a person spilling back out without a smile plastered all over their face.
7. Nicky Murray
Spotted tuning-up in the campsite under Saturday afternoon’s late sunshine alongside violinist/co-conspirator Chloe Rodgers, Glasgow singer-songwriter Nicky Murray proved to be our undisputed find of the festival. Marrying the folky sensibilities of so many Scottish contemporaries (from sometime Idlewild singer Roddy Woomble to Kris Drever to John McCusker) to the gravel-throated jazziness of local hero Paolo Nutini, songs like Beeswing work their way easily under the skin and into the heart. His album Plenty More Weeping is cracking, too.
8. Stuart Braithwaite
Crashing guitars! Deafening volume! Moments of eclectic electro brilliance! They’re the elements we’ve justifiably come to expect from Mogwai mainman Stuart Braithwaite’s primary outfit. But the insanely talented Glaswegian polymath strips back the layers for this down-the-road weekender. Armed only with guitar, amp and his haunting vocal waver he fills the acoustic tent with die-hard fans and curious newcomers alike – all eager for a look at the softer side of one of contemporary Scottish rock’s greatest heroes.
9. 3000 Trees: The Death Of Mr William MacRae
Amidst the feast of folk, rock, reggae and dance music, Wickerman festival also dips its toes into the wider arts. It’s evident in everything from the beautiful installations fixed in most of the covered stages and onsite cinema, to the overall effort put into fostering young creatives. We stumbled into this one-man-show – a darkly dramatic commemoration of Scottish activist Willie MacRae, portraying the ghost of the man himself emptying the best of a bottle of Bells scotch while acidically contemplating the questionable circumstances that surrounded his own heavily-debated death. It’s powerful stuff – and a refreshingly jarring change of political pace given extra bearing in the aftermath of last-year’s Scottish Independence referendum.
10. Tom Odell
Chichester’s singing-songwriting sensation proved the biggest draw of the whole festival, with his uniquely emotive lyrics and old-fashioned showmanship uniting a cross-generational throng that spilled across the whole site. Boasting a setup featuring his name in bright, old-school Hollywood lights, a host of backing musicians and a grand piano getting a harder throttling than most rockstars would manage with a guitar, his performance delivers all the promise of a future major-festival headliner. And, even if Another Love remains the titanic tune on which his career is anchored, the others aired tonight don’t lag too far behind.
11. The Sonics
Tacoma, Washington’s garage-rock legends The Sonics should, by rights, be the kind of band propping up the business end of the main stage at a festival like Wickerman. Legends of the US rock scene, the ’60s veterans have influenced everyone from Nirvana to Bruce Springsteen to contemporary alt. heroes like The Gaslight Anthem and The Menzingers, and their Scooter-tent headline rolls back the year with a display of classy verve that musicians a third the age of those onstage would struggle to replicate.
12. Example & DJ Wire
Some might consider getting to close the main stage while a significant chunk of the audience are jostling for a perfect spot to catch the ceremonial burning of the festival’s eponymous Wickerman as something of a poisoned chalice. Not Elliot John Gleave, mind. The London rap supremo (better known as Changed The Way You Kiss Me-hitmaker, Example) combines with big-beat comrade DJ Wire to bounce away the minutes before midnight. And as a display of how to ensure everyone goes home on a well-sprung high, it’s the perfect Example.
13. The Wicker Man
And so, the inevitable fiery end.
Everyone knows Wickerman festival burns out rather than fading away, but there’s a real sense of poignancy this year as the clock ticks down to midnight on the Sabbath and the 30ft, bird-headed sentinel that’s kept watch over the site goes up in flames.
One of the shooting-sites for Robin Hardy’s seminal 1973 horror of the same name, Dundrennan has always seemed a logical spot for Wickerman. “Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ” laughs one punter – invoking Edward Woodward’s doomed, virginal policeman from the film. “He’s just a silly man!,” a pair of parents reassure their kids, promising that it’s only a statue being burned. But this year the fire-ritual has dual meaning. A statue influenced by the legend of the phoenix gets reduced to ash. And a festival that looked lost to the wind gets ready to rise again, bigger and better for 2016.