IT is a truth universally acknowledged that any festival worthy of the description amounts to much more than its headline acts, and that those who camp out in front of the stage all day in anticipation of the main attraction are missing out on that nebulous phenomenon they call the “festival experience”.
Festival season is littered with anti-climactic closing sets from artists who turn out to be among the least interesting courses in a tasty line-up (though at least at T there is always the traditional piper to perk things up). But the right headliner at the right time can unleash communal euphoria and capture a moment with greater potency than any other slot on the bill. Careers can be made or rebooted on such occasions, and lifelong memories forged.
T in the Park, with its 85,000 capacity, multiple stages and 200-plus acts, is not short of action around the fringes but this year all roads seem to lead to the top of the bill where – with apologies to the very capable and somewhat sexy Arctic Monkeys – three very different homecoming heroes in the shape of Biffy Clyro, Calvin Harris and Paolo Nutini stand to make the popular killing at the 2014 festival.
The T audience is world renowned for the warmth of its welcome (read: inebriated enthusiasm), but that reception always appears to intensify when faced with one of their own. The Proclaimers rally the troops again and again, Franz Ferdinand always get the tent poles shaking and The View foment moshpit mayhem. However, no Scottish act has headlined the main stage since Texas in 2001. Isn’t that always the way? You wait 13 years for a homegrown headliner and then three come along at once, offering music for the heart, the soul and the feet.
Friday night headliners Biffy Clyro are the heart part of the equation. The Ayrshire trio can truly be said to have grown up with T in the Park, working their way up from a slot on the T Break Stage in 1999. This year, Biffy inch ahead of Snow Patrol as the act which has made the most T appearances and, as frontman Simon Neil has said, “it just feels poetic to be headlining on our tenth time”.
The honour is richly deserved. Even in their early days as unfashionably intense, angular rockers with oblique song titles and wiggy time signatures, they attracted an ardent following, the kind of fan who was “Biffy for life”. The jump from solid cult status to mainstream contenders inevitably came after they signed a major deal in 2006 and embraced their inner arena rocker on their fourth album, Puzzle. The fanbase was no less intense, just growing in number.
Stadium support slots with the likes of Muse and Bon Jovi, not to mention graduating to festival main stages, honed their live show. By the time they were headlining their own arena tour, they had mastered the art of the epic, big-hearted performance. Their crossover appeal was sealed when a cover of their earnest album track Many Of Horror, retitled When We Collide, was released as the 2010 X Factor winner’s single.
Purist Biffy fans were unimpressed but the band were more magnanimous. These days, a typical tops-off Biffy set encompasses meaty alternative rockers, cathartic feral thrashes, lighter-waving ballads and spiky prog-punk oddities – the ideal festival smorgasbord. Fifteen years and ten T appearances down the line, Biffy take their rightful place at the top of the bill. Tissues at the ready – it’s going to be emotional.
If Biffy’s appearance on the opening night is likely to set the emotional benchmark for the weekend, Calvin Harris’s headline set on Saturday is set to be the euphoric peak of proceedings. Unlike Biffy’s sure and steady rise, Harris has advanced from DIY recording in a Dumfries bedroom to becoming the world’s highest-paid DJ (according to the 2013 Forbes rich list) in a matter of years, harvesting a host of hits from his third album, 18 Months, like so many loaves and fishes, and scooping an Ivor Novello award for best composer along the way.
While he has taken to the jetset lifestyle with alacrity, Harris seemed quite uncomfortable with the Novello accolade, seeing himself more as a purveyor of beats than a songsmith. But there’s no denying that he knows his way around a tune – his second album, Ready For The Weekend, was full of them.
Back then, Harris sang the songs himself and toured with a full band but it was follow-up 18 Months, with its line-up of big name guest vocalists and nine hit singles – beat that, previous record holder Michael Jackson – which sent him into the stratosphere. Presumably, the likes of Rihanna, Florence Welch and Ne-Yo will be unavailable to make a guest appearance at his T slot.
Harris gets around the inconvenient absence of his star vocalists these days by sticking to a DJ set which includes his own biggest tunes and drops in a number of other crowd-pleasing party tracks. He didn’t get where he is today – arguably further from his roots than the habitually humble Biffy and Paolo – by shunning the mainstream, but neither does he take success for granted. He may simply be playing his own records in the middle of a field in Perthshire, but he still puts on a wow of a lightshow.
His Saturday co-headliner Paolo Nutini has enjoyed a similarly stellar trajectory at a more leisurely pace, taking five well-spent years to produce his latest album, the seductive, mature and accomplished Caustic Love which, on its release in April, became the fastest-selling album of the year so far.
Like Biffy Clyro, Nutini’s T tale started in the T Break Tent and it was to there that he returned undercover in 2008 to play a one-off show as Snake Derrick & the Vipers, testing out new material from his second album Sunny Side Up. That one sold a few copies. He’s been main stage fodder for quite some time now, but Nutini is still the most hesitant live proposition of the three homegrown headliners. However, that is starting to change. Although Nutini is promoted as a solo artist, his band is fundamental to his musical vision. In order to do justice to the soulful slowburners on Caustic Love, Nutini has expanded the Vipers line-up to include gospel backing singers and a fully funky horn section.
These guys are the safest of hands, allowing Nutini to relax as a performer, open his eyes, throw the odd shape and banter with the crowd – all tried techniques that will help him project his performance right to the back of the field. He is probably still more comfortable playing with a roof over his head but the breadth of his appeal and the depth of support he can call on from his partisan Scottish fans could be the boost that gives him the ultimate home advantage next weekend.
• T in the Park takes place at Balado Airfield, Kinross, 11-13 July. Biffy Clyro headline Friday 11 July; Calvin Harris and Paolo Nutini co-headline Saturday 12 July