Up there with Thin Lizzy by Ian Rankin

‘Better than Josh Pearson!’

That was what it said on the hand-printed sticker. The sticker was attached to an odd-looking CD in the new releases section of the Edinburgh record shop, Avalanche. The shop’s proprietor, Kevin Buckle, was the man behind the claim. I asked him about the album. It was by an Aberfeldy-based group called Star Wheel Press. Their singer also ran a gallery and made his own woodcuts. He had just delivered the albums that morning. If I cared to open the cellophane wrapper, I would smell fresh ink. ‘And the music’s pretty good, too,’ Kevin added.

Reader, I took the CD home with me. The cardboard sleeve was still damp to the touch. The artist, Ryan Hannigan, had signed, numbered and dated each copy. Mine was 101. And, when I got round to playing it, a smile spread across my face. It was fine stuff, witty and wise, with solid tunes and a playful tone leavened by occasional nostalgia.

I said as much on Twitter, then bumped into Ryan at a craft fair in Edinburgh, after which we started to correspond. By summer, he was asking me if I fancied curating a music festival in Aberfeldy.

‘How much work would it be?’

‘You just need to pick the bands; we’ll do the rest.’

‘Deal.’

But which bands? Who would be available and willing? I think my original wish-list had ten names on it, but only six would be needed (three gigs per night over the weekend). The first six we asked all said yes. And that’s why I found myself driving up to misty Perthshire a week or so ago. The town hall was the venue. Hot food and cold drinks could be had. The sound engineer was, I was told, a genius. Everyone was going to sound great.

An hour before kick-off, people started arriving. The buzz was palpable. First on stage was John Hunt, a blues musician with a Tuesday-night Edinburgh residency at the Jazz Bar. I’d seen him play a few times and knew he’d get the place going. John built his own guitar from bits of a table and an in-car stereo. I once called him ‘Seasick Steve in a science lab’ and I stick by that.

He played a great 30-minute set, and was followed by local heroes Star Wheel Press, who had the audience eating out of their hands. Indeed, an encore was demanded. Having no songs left in their repertoire, an old favourite was played for a second time that night. No pressure on headline act James Yorkston.

But James had an ace up his sleeve. He had brought an Indian musician with him, the two playing together for only the second or third time. They concocted a heady, spacey sound which swirled around the hall, taking the audience to other, mystical places, entrancing and surprising us in the process. Exiting the hall at midnight, into streets fogged with street-lamp yellow, I felt I’d seen something pretty special.

On the second day, the tension had evaporated. The bands and audiences were enjoying themselves, sound checks had been a breeze, the sun was shining in memory of Guy Fawkes, and a covers band in the town square belted out Deep Purple and Steely Dan as locals shopped for preserves and kindling.

I visited Ryan’s gallery and saw the woodcuts he used for the album sleeves, along with the actual press after which his band is named.

‘Ready for tonight?’ I asked.

‘Oh, yes.’

That first night, backstage had played host to a grand total of eight musicians, but now things were a lot more crowded. The three-piece power pop of Ballboy kicked things off. People in the audience had come from as far afield as Skye and Kendal. They were out to have a good time and Ballboy got them in the mood.

Meantime I was standing off to one side, wondering why my patter was so poor. I’d gone onstage at the start of the night and told the crowd ‘There might be fireworks outside, but we’ll have plenty here, too, at least musically.’ Hopeless. And all captured by two camera crews — one covering the whole weekend for festival sponsor Dewar’s Whisky, the other from the BBC, filming me for a documentary.

When each band came off the stage, I did impromptu interviews with them for these cameras. ‘How was that for you? First time in Aberfeldy?’ Hopeless squared.

So praise be for the music. A Band Called Quinn put on quite a show, singer Louise Quinn in sequins, with film-clips projected on to the curtain behind her. I asked her where the band’s keyboard-player was. ‘Barcelona,’ she explained. ‘He’s touring with Aidan Moffat.’ A pause. ‘He did say he’d come back for one night if we really needed him. We told him not to be daft.’

After another slick changeover, Admiral Fallow took charge. Sections of the crowd had become boisterous, but the band gave as good as they got, and when they lined up at the front of the stage to sing one number a cappella you could hear a pin drop. Their set lasted a crisp, filler-free hour, and ended with a tremendous encore of Paul Simon’s ‘You Can Call Me Al’.

And who was that, chuckling inanely as he cut some shapes off to one side of the stage? Yes, it was me. The weekend had been glorious from start to finish. ‘Best gig in Aberfeldy since Thin Lizzy,’ one local told me. Praise indeed.

Here’s to next year.

http://www.spectator.co.uk/arts-and-culture/night-and-day/7388243/up-there-with-thin-lizzy.thtml

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